Why libraries still need books on shelves

I grew up in libraries. Summer days were spent blissfully in the mobile library that came to my neighborhood every week. Every week I’d escape the blistering heat outdoors and enter an air conditioned magic castle. To me, it was magic. I would spend hours gazing at the shelves of books, taking out any one that caught my eye. I checked out at least 10 at a time, devouring them over and over until the next week’s visit. Thinking back on this time still makes me happy–I was a solitary kid, not many friends, but books filled in that gap and I made many, many friends among the intriguingly scented pages. I still love the smell of books in a library.

So when I heard about an article that advocated retaining the stacks in a campus library in lieu of moving them offsite, I was intrigued. In the article, Ann Michael, writing coordinator at DeSales University, recommends keeping the books onsite, even though as writing coordinator she would benefit from having the extra space. She wants instructors to push their students into the stacks, allowing them to get lost, allowing them to make serendipitous discoveries. As she puts it,

“The curious, inquisitive, emotional human mind — which is not an algorithm seeking one specific text or trained upon one set of parameters only — can find on those shelves a physical object that provides something unavailable through virtual technologies.”

A physical book can also be something beautiful in and of itself, with a tactile element lost in a world of electronic devices. And browsing in real time teaches students that finding good, reliable information sources takes time. Having a real, live librarian help with a search in a way that no software program can, and having a physical being there to share in a “Eureka” moment can enhance the whole library experience. As well, “books offer more chances for surprise and delight,” says Michael. The physical experience of interacting with book, the titles on the spine inviting deep thought and contemplation, may just offer a student a chance to find something that will change their life.

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