Why College Libraries Are Going Bookless

We’ve all read the news stories about this college or that college removing books from their libraries. Stanford was one of the first to go bookless back in 2010, and many more colleges have followed suit. This includes Florida Polytechnic University, which opened a bookless library in 2014, and the University of Michigan, which reopened a medical library in 2015 but left the books in storage.

Taubman Health Sciences Library

From the Toledo Blade:

The University of Michigan has reopened its Taubman Health Sciences Library after a $55 million overhaul and rethinking of how a library for medical students should function.

Hundreds of thousands of books were moved to an offsite location and are available on demand for delivery, and by becoming “bookless” the school said that frees up space for medical student education. The facility on the school’s Ann Arbor campus officially reopened over the weekend.

You can find more details in the U of M’s announcement.

While a traditionalist may object to a library without books, the fact of the matter is libraries have always been more than warehouses for books. Academic libraries in particular are used more for study than for storing old and possibly outdated books.

Or as one retired librarian framed it over on The Passive Voice:

It’s about education and what works best to teach students. Just being able to browse shelves of old books, when medical information turns over about every five years, is not enough. Electronic databases with full-text articles and other online information are more accessible and more current. Browsing online is far superior to looking at shelves. Collaboration and group learning has been shown to be far superior to the solitary, no-feedback, one-way lecture of the physical book and doing it in the library is great.

And just so you know, UM’s books had been moved to storage a couple years ago when the renovations began. In effect, the library had gone bookless a couple years ago with little or no negative impact on the students.

Students simply don’t need the books taking up the space, not when they mostly used for studying, as another librarian over at The Passive Voice:

In 2009 I worked at a legal research library. Very few students ever got a book off the shelf. It’s all online. I would reshelve, at most, maybe 30 books a day.

Research libraries are NOT browsing libraries for the most part. You have a specific book you want to find in most cases. Usually people would ask me to fetch it without ever entering the stacks.

The stacks were used primarily for studying, the tables and chairs and couches were used extensively.

That librarian went on to add that when a student requested a book, it was usually either on reserve behind the circulation desk or in storage. Most of the rest of the books simply weren’t required,  so they were taking up space which could be put to better use.

And frankly, the book-less library is simply the latest stage in a trend that has been building for over ten years now. As information becomes easier to access online, many categories of books have become redundant.

Phone books were the first to go, followed by atlases. Both were replaced by online phone books, map sites, etc. Guidebooks and factbooks were the next in the trash bin, and now some libraries have found that their entire collections can be pushed into the back room so more space can be dedicated to learning.

I expect the trend to continue to grow, but I don’t expect it to spread. Bexar County Public Library notwithstanding, the book-less library is an idea that won’t work in every situation.

Public school libraries, for example, can’t go book-less because they frequently lack the funding to do so. But most college libraries will look like Taubman Health Sciences Library over the next ten years, if not sooner.

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. A Library Without Books | readers+writers journal6 August, 2015

    […] Passive Voice and The Digital Reader chime in with discussion. It actually does make a lot of sense, especially when you consider the […]

  2. DavidW6 August, 2015

    When I was in grad school (early 2000s) nearly all articles I read online. Being a student I had password access to a secure website with all of the journals and their back catalogs. In physics it all starts with the preprint server (arXiv), which revolutionized academic communication in physics, chemistry and mathematics. Journal articles would be submitted to the server, which is free for anyone to read, and then later submitted to an expensive peer reviewed journal. When I was an undergrad in the late 90s when I did summer research, I found the articles I needed on the preprint server. FYI that server went online in 1993.

    So yeah this has been along time coming, but I think that this article falsely concludes that college libraries are going bookless.

    Let’s start with Digital Reader’s old Stanford article. It was inaccurate. Removing the periodicals is not the same thing as going bookless. Going bookless means removing all books, both periodicals and textbooks. Standard removed the periodicals that they had access to through a secure website. But they kept the textbooks! If you reread the linked article, you’ll see that plain as day.

    In grad school there is a place for both cutting edge research and modestly less current books. There is always a foundation that has to be set before working on a research project. And that is where textbooks come in. While libraries can form networks to get access to a wide variety of journals, paying for annual leases on textbooks is prohibitively expensive, especially for small colleges. It is still more cost effective to maintain a library of physical books.

    While moving periodicals online is a trend that has already run its course, these two bookless libraries are outliers and not an emerging trend. That Florida college spends millions on a new building, and then only $60k on books. That speaks volumes. They’re just being flashy, they don’t care about serving their student and faculty body with an extensive library. Else they could not bothered with the building, and put all of that money into a competitive library, whether it be electronic or paper.

  3. Chris Strauber6 August, 2015

    It really depends on what kind of library whether this makes any sense. Law and medicine and engineering are mostly journal-article-based, so the book literature is smaller and easier to digitize. The main libraries at Stanford and Michigan (and my academic library) will continue to have large numbers of print books for a long time because the social sciences and humanities are still publishing them and using them for research.

  4. Frank6 August, 2015

    When I went to college ten years ago, I used the library for studying and rarely for the books. Kids today are similar.

  5. […] Sourced through Scoop.it from: the-digital-reader.com […]

  6. Casey Kane19 August, 2015

    What are the financial concerns of libraries having to annually pay and re-pay licensing fees in an environment where the subscription fees have been constantly increasing? Having electronic versions of textbooks does not guarantee that every student who needs the textbook can use it at the same time: providers often limit the number of simultaneous uses. (Ever had to wait to download an audiobook that wasn’t available, because all of the “copies” happened to be “checked out” at the moment? I have. Thanks, Microsoft OverDrive!)

    Ever had to cut a library’s budget, and drop your subscription to OCLC, in order to be able to pay for databases?

    Yes, yes, yes: there are both pros and cons to this very large issue: I’m not stupid. (Well, no more than usual. But how would I know?)

    It’s just that the “pros” are determined by, and heavily in favor of, those doing the selling/licensing. They’re not in this because of their love of knowledge and desire to provide information so that everyone can become educated. They’re selling product. (And doing it very well, I should add.)

    And although computers and mobile devices and internet and wifi are ubiquitous today, what about 10, 20, 30 years from now? My local electric and gas provider added equipment to my house several years ago so that, in the event of a heat wave, when everyone is running their air conditioners at full-blast, the company has the power to throttle the amount of electricity each customer can use. Because the infrastructure can’t keep up with the demand.

    Sorry for the doom and gloom perspective, but are we really sure that digital devices will be available and functional in the future? And, if so, available equally, and not just to the elite who can afford them?

    Just something I think people should keep in mind–without necessarily being over-dramatic. The technology that we have now, which many young people seem to perceive as being *natural* (“You mean there wasn’t always an internet?”), is not guaranteed to last, particularly in a period where so much of the country’s infrastructure is not in the prime of health.

    Just one point of view. I’m not married to it (would you marry me if you were it?) And I don’t feel it’s “Gospel Truth” that I should be preaching. But I do believe it’s a critical point of view to consider in the midst of the larger discussion.

    That’s all. Thanks for reading.

  7. […] Why College Libraries Are Going Bookless (The Digital Reader) […]

  8. […] been taking place in university libraries across the country for the past few years now. Students largely use libraries for study and revision, and they don’t spend hours pouring over 10 different print books and journals, carefully copying […]

  9. janice26 May, 2017

    Are you seriously going to trust that the book content won’t be altered when changed to digital? This is a seriously dangerous encounter for those seeking knowledge, especially historical knowledge, that can be changed in the digital process. I will believe that book alterations will most definitely happen and for sinister reasons. If one dot or tittle is touched then you should never trust what you will be reading an original writing. Everything is being corrupted in society.

  10. Anna Castle27 May, 2019

    The University of Texas at Austin cleared most of two floors in its central library to make room for collaborative study spaces. There are still plenty of books left on the shelves, but many older works of limited interest have been moved to an offsite storage facility. When I want something like a 1930’s book about the Stationer’s Guild in the Elizabethan period, I just click “Retrieve from storage” in the online catalog. It’s at the circulation desk the next morning. No trouble for me and the kids have these great study spaces in the most convenient location on campus. It’s a great solution to competing needs.

    1. Richard Hershberger28 May, 2019

      A 1930s book about the Stationer’s Guild is actually a great example of a book that should be kept forever. It would be a totally relevant research resource in applicable fields. A science book from the 1930s, by way of contrast, would be of interest only in the history of science, not for its own sake.

      So long as the discussion is about where the book is kept, rather than whether it is kept, this is really only about open versus closed stacks, with perhaps extra delay if the books are stored offsite. Major libraries have always had to some extent closed stacks. I am someone who would find a book on the Stationer’s Guild fascinating. I always preferred open stacks, for the serendipitous discovery. I can only request that book if I know it exists. There are electronic tools to try to accomplish this end. They work modestly well.

      I am resigned to offsite storage. It clearly is the wave of the future. But this can easily turn into deacquistion. My local public library remodeled a few years ago. Replacing the shelves with lower shelves was inevitable. Having lots of empty space on those low shelves was not. That was a decision to get rid of books even when there was still room for them.

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  29. […] While a traditionalist may object to a library without books, the fact of the matter is libraries have always been more than warehouses for books. Academic libraries in particular are used more for study than for storing old and possibly outdated books. __ Why Libraries are Going Bookless […]

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