We've been hearing about it for years, but the bookless library has finally arrived, making a beachhead on college campuses. At Drexel University's new Library Learning Terrace, which opened just last month, there is nary a bound volume, just rows of computers and plenty of seating offering access to the Philadelphia university's 170 million electronic items. Scott Erdy, designer of the new library, says open, flexible space — the furniture is movable and the walls act as one giant whiteboard — allows student and staff "knowledge transfer," a concept reinforced by Danuta Nitecki, dean of Drexel's libraries. "We don't just house books, we house learning," she says.
The trend began, naturally, with engineers, when Kansas State University's engineering library went primarily bookless in 2000. Last year, Stanford University pruned all but 10,000 printed volumes from its new engineering library, making more room for large tables and study areas. And the University of Texas at San Antonio ditched print in lieu of electronic material when it opened its engineering library in 2010. (See the 100 best English-language novels of all time.)
But when books disappear, does a library lose its definition?
"The library is a societal tent pole," says Michael Connelly, best-selling author of The Fifth Witness. "There are a lot of ideas under it. Knock out the pole and the tent comes down." Connelly says that browsing through physical books brings inspiration of the kind that led him from wandering his campus library's stacks straight to a writing career. "Can something like that happen in a bookless library? I'm not so sure," he says.
From a design perspective, some architects also lament the inevitable trend toward booklessness. Steven Holl, architect of Queens Library's new branch, in New York City, says books still provide character and are a nice counterpoint to technology. "Acknowledging the digital and its speed and putting it in relation to the history and physical presence of the books makes it an exciting space," Holl says. "A book represents knowledge, and striking a balance in a library is a good thing." (See "The E-Book Era Is Here: Best Sellers Go Digital.")
But other designers, like Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas who designed the Seattle Central Library, seem inspired by the challenge presented by a world going bookless. His vertical "book spiral" can house over 1 million books while opening floor space for the "equal presentation" of emerging media.
Others are hedging their bets that if the library isn't bookless now, someday it probably will be. The upcoming transformation of the New York Public Library's main branch "anticipates the parallel and integrated worlds of electronic digital systems and traditional books" as they complement each other in flexible space that can endure changes, says architect Norman Foster. And although he celebrates the analog world of printed books in his design of the brain-shaped library at Berlin's Free University, he places the stacks in the center of the curved, modern building with digital technology around them, allowing room to adapt "for life beyond the book."