Books aren't dead at university libraries

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 14 2010 11:00 p.m. MST

The traditional library has been replaced with computers and a comfortable atmosphere where students can hang out and even take a nap.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

When millions of books could be stored on a computer hard drive, it might seem a bit odd for universities to build and renovate huge campus libraries. The J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, was recently renovated to the tune of $78 million, for instance. But take a stroll into the U.'s library — or any university library for that matter — and it might be ten minutes before you see a student with a book.

To understand why so much money is being poured into the modern university library (the U.'s library costs more than $18 million a year to run), you have to expand your concept of a library beyond print.

This isn't to say the modern university library doesn't have books. They do. But the way students use a library goes beyond books to include e-books, research databases, classes, studying and socializing.

Last week, William H. Ellison was sitting in the U.'s library with some friends in a hotel-lobby-like nook. Ellison, a junior from Salt Lake City studying biology, says he likes to use the library to study — which includes study groups, working in the computer lab and so forth. "It's a great place to study, a quiet place."

Ellison has taken a class in digital photography at the library. He likes its restaurant, particularly their BBQ sandwich.

But Ellison's favorite use of the library has little to do with studying.

"Sleep would be one reason I come to the library. For sure, a lot of sleep is done in here," Ellison said. "I just try to survive class and then come here and catch up on my sleep."

Looking around the library, there are indeed a few students napping here and there — sprawled out on bed-like benches or head down on a desk. But most students seem absorbed in their laptop computers — accessing the library's databases of information, research journals and the like.

"Probably the most significant single development that has changed the way people are using libraries, is the fact that information has moved off the page and onto the network," says Rick Anderson, associate director for scholarly resources and collections at the U.'s library.

There is also a lot of group studying. Students study together in study rooms (some rooms are even equipped with computer projectors). They study around tables. They gather around large whiteboards.

And yes, there are even a few students with print books.

Ellison, for example, says he has checked out books from the library — "Less than ten. More than five."

Anderson explains that people will still read a printed book when they want to read something long, "But when they want to find out a piece of information, they are very unlikely to pick up a printed book." To find articles, gather citations or to verify facts, students are more likely to use electronic resources and databases.

Joyce L. Ogburn, dean of the U.'s library and vice president/president elect of the Association of College and University Research Libraries is bullish on books — both electronic and traditional print: "People have different ways with how they work best with information."

Michael Freeman, library director at Utah Valley University, would agree. He says some students prefer print, some prefer an e-book. "It depends on the student," Freeman says. "We see requests for both — and we have both."

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