Emerging trend toward bookless libraries in a digital age

Mary Harkins, principal of Archbishop Wood High School, is overseeing the effort to reduce its library holdings from about 47,000 books to about 1,000.
Mary Harkins, principal of Archbishop Wood High School, is overseeing the effort to reduce its library holdings from about 47,000 books to about 1,000. (CHRIS PALMER / Staff)
Posted: January 22, 2013

The last time a student at Archbishop Wood High School borrowed Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was 1997. Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island has fared even worse: No student has checked out the adventure novel since 1991.

It could be they are simply dated and unappealing to today's high school students, or it could be because they are, well, books in an age of proliferating digital information.

Either way, these titles may not be on Archbishop Wood's shelves much longer: By the end of the school year, the number of volumes in the school's library will be whittled from 47,000 to about 1,000 to make room for a new bank of computers, projection equipment, and collaborative space.

It's an effort to make the library better suit the needs and research habits of 21st-century students, principal Mary Harkins said, adding that the final book count would depend on what fitted the school's curriculum.

Some items, such as theological texts or English books, will be moved to individual departments. Others will be shipped to school libraries around the country that want additional books. Many titles will be given away for free throughout the spring. And in a morose sign of the times, books that can't find a home will have their pages stripped from the spine and be thrown into the recycling bin.

In this day and age, Harkins said, the library's printed collection just doesn't get used enough to justify keeping it all. The school's retired librarian, Barbara Schuster-Boer, who is back temporarily to help with the book downsizing effort, estimated that recently, 2,000 books had been checked out each year (the equivalent of about two books per student per year).

More important, Harkins added, the reading and research habits of millennial students often begin and end online, rather than in the library stacks. The school, therefore, has to adapt, she said, and to focus on teaching students how to access reliable information on the web.

While a library without books sounds like an oxymoron, diving into the digital realm has been a growing nationwide trend.

Earlier this month, San Antonio, Texas, announced plans to launch a bookless public-library system in the fall, believed to be the first in the country. The library will have 100 e-readers that people can take home, with a catalog of digital book titles available for rent.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library system was considering closing some underutilized locations and that it would also begin offering digital photography, videography, and podcasting classes at its main branch.

And Susan Ballard, president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), said school libraries were joining public libraries in this digital transformation. An AASL survey published last year showed that, between 2008 and 2012, the average number of computers in school libraries rose from 23.9 to 29.3.

"Over time, people have been relooking at the ratios that they provide between print resources and digital resources and online resources and a variety of things," she said. "That's definitely a trend that has been emerging."

Not everyone is completely behind the digitizing of libraries. A proposal to make bookless one of four public libraries in Newport Beach, Calif., led to a community uproar. A call to the proposed paperless branch confirmed that it did, indeed, continue to maintain a selection of print titles.

A similar attempt to go bookless in a Tucson, Ariz., public library in 2002 hung on for a few years, but it, too, eventually added stacks of paper books, according to a report from NPR.

At Archbishop Wood, student body president Nick Ortiz, a senior lacrosse player, actually ran for office on a platform of maintaining the books in the library.

"It's really sad that this is going to happen," he said in an interview this week, adding that some students enjoyed reading in the library after school.

But principal Harkins said that while she has received questions from parents about the plans to do away with paper tomes, she hasn't experienced a heated backlash. She insists that reducing the number of print books is not suggesting that books aren't useful; it's about eliminating the number of items collecting dust on the shelves.

"I would never want anyone to think of Archbishop Wood that we're diminishing the importance of the book," she said. "We're holding on to a valuable resource that someone else can use."


Contact Chris Palmer at 609-217-8305 or cpalmer@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @cs_palmer.

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