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Too soon to let computers replace university libraries

by

UT

at Houston has announced that it is removing almost all the books from its undergraduate library to provide space for a digital learning center, where students can use computers to access a wide variety of information. University officials are proud to be leading a trend.

It is good to see academia catching up with technology. But what are the repercussions of this shift? I am thinking about this from various perspectives: Teacher, researcher, author and reader.

When I became a doctoral student, my department chairman sent me a list of 45 books for the summer before by studies commenced. Initially I thought of picking one or two favorite titles, but a telephone call clarified the issue: I was to read every single book, and discuss them intelligently in our seminar. So I made sure that I had prescription sunglasses and went to work!

Today, whenever I assign two chapters of a book to my students for our next meeting, I get requests for clarification. I know that I am becoming outdated in my reading demands and the removal of books at UT will only hasten the demise of my apparently tyrannosaurical expectations.

We use books to learn what others before us have thought — which forms the basis for our research. But do we really need books for that? Much research requires persistence, perseverance and perspiration to carry out repetitive organizational tasks that develop our understanding of a field. Computers are quite well equipped to help with such chores. They allow us to manipulate, search, collate, extract, compare — something that only vandals can do with books. Yet, is our understanding weaker because of changes in the process?

Sources and citations used to be a scholar’s stock in trade, but just like the grinding skills of lens crafters, these talents are not much sought after anymore today — machines are so much better at it. By going to Google Scholar one can find citations typically in 0.4 second or less. My students barely cite “hard” copies of journals anymore; their reference sections come from the Web.

Yet, Web research places an awesome responsibility on scholars and their search engines. How do we avoid the thinking that if something does not show up on a computer search it simply does not exist? How do we steer clear of consigning writings into oblivion just because they are either less recent or not in English, or not cited often enough?

Will such practices permanently affect our capacity to innovate and to spread new thought or will we create a reader’s “Mayan” syndrome where later generations will wonder why we abandoned existing knowledge?

As a writer of books, their removal from libraries saddens me. But textbooks can cost more than $100 today, a price at which publishers are telling me that they barely can survive. By contrast, a CD with dynamite programs that allow interactivity offer wonderful colors and online work, weighs very little, and costs only a fraction of a book. Yet payments for software and online activities are not as well worked out as they are for books; illegal downloads are rampant.

Many CDs are actual adaptations of existing books. We have publishers unwilling to invest, authors who may know their content but are not computer experts and a market where compensation is uncertain. These factors raise questions about who will make the effort to write the new texts, who will review them for quality and who will publish them?

Finally, some thoughts from a reader’s perspective. To me, books feel good. Reading aloud with my daughter and turning a page is special. Seeing a book again after many years is like running into an old friend — it brings back memories, and helps me make a connection between temporal distances. When visiting someone I always like to glance at the books. A look at their “holdings” gives me a good sense of what we share, what we can talk about and what direction any future relationship would take.

So here we are. Time marches on relentlessly and perhaps this is the dawn of a new era. Johannes Gensfleisch Gutenberg and his invention of the printing press have had a good run. The Texans may know best when to fold them and when to walk away, but at the current state of the art I think books will be with us for a while yet. The person you see at the beach reading in the breeze and not worrying about moisture or grains of sand may well be me. Feel free to set up your computer!