College libraries ditch books for study space

BERKELEY, Calif. — The remodeled undergraduate library at the University of California, Berkeley, is modern and sleek. Its top two floors have low-slung couches, a nap pod, and meeting spaces with glass walls made to be written on and colorful furniture meant to be moved.

The library has even dropped its rules against food and drinks on those floors. That’s because they no longer contain any books, which could be damaged or stained.

California’s oldest university has removed 135,000 books from Moffitt Library to create more space for students to study, recharge and collaborate on group projects.

Libraries are 4,000 years old, but the digital revolution is changing their use on college campuses. From coast to coast, college libraries are removing rows of steel shelving, stashing the books they held in other campus locations and discarding duplicates to make way for open study spaces. Their budgets are shifting away from print to digital materials.

The changes have met resistance. But they suit many students just fine.

Ted Xiao, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, loves the changes at Moffitt. He and five classmates recently used a meeting room to work on a PowerPoint presentation. As they brainstormed, they snacked on snickerdoodles and milk tea.

Moffitt used to be so “old and musty,” Xiao said, that he visited once and never returned. Now he comes often — and doesn’t miss the books. Everything he needs is online.

“I’ve never actually needed to use a physical book,” Xiao said. “I’ve never checked one out. I can’t honestly say I even know how.”

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, however, the removal of 80,000 books from the Science and Engineering Library last summer sparked uproar—among faculty. This winter, more than 60 science and math faculty members signed a letter to university librarian M. Elizabeth Cowell, complaining that they hadn’t been adequately consulted on which books could be discarded and which ones had to be saved.

Cowell wrote in reply that she had conferred with deans and administrators, posted updates on the library’s homepage, but heard of no “significant concern.” She said all of the books that were moved or destroyed — about 60 percent of the library’s collection — were used infrequently and could be accessed online or through UC interlibrary loans.

“Nothing has left the scholarly record,” said campus spokesman Scott Hernandez-Jason.

UC Santa Cruz increased enrollment by 730 students last fall. Removing all books from the library’s third floor, Hernandez-Jason said, allows for a classroom and “desperately needed study space.”

Still, the Academic Senate approved a resolution in November to say it “condemns the dramatic reduction of the print collection” and “deplores the destruction of books.”

Richard Montgomery, a UC Santa Cruz math professor, said online access or interlibrary loans are fine for those who know exactly what they need. What’s gone is the ability to browse for ideas.

“You walk into a space that used to be a library and it’s empty,” he said. “It’s horrible. It’s like death.”

Harvard University faculty succeeded in scaling back a plan to remove about 90 percent of books and print material from the Cabot Science Library. Curtis T. McMullen, a math professor, said he fought hard to keep many of the math books, which help him solve research problems.

Administrators agreed to keep 50,000 books within reach in the library basement.

But McMullen said he accepts that print books are on their way out.

“It’s the wave of the future,” he said of digital learning. “The idea of research in a library is becoming archaic, versus Googling on the Internet. Maybe they’re not accessing the best information with what comes up on Google, but people are used to finding things on the Internet.”

The University of California, Los Angeles, was a leader in library redesign, reconfiguring a floor in the Charles E. Young Research Library in 2011 to make room for open seating, group study rooms and collaboration pods. About 18,000 volumes — half the print reference collection — were moved elsewhere, but more than 2 million books remain on other floors.


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