Vermont State University is a new institution formed from merging several underperforming state colleges in Vermont. It needs to save money. So its administration has proposed to get rid of eight librarians and most of its (physical) books. Contents of the books would still be available digitally. Popular trade books would shift to a community model — take a book, leave a book — as if the whole university library was becoming a huge “Little Free Library.”
The plan makes perfect sense. But it’s still wrong. One word describes why: serendipity.
Why this feels wrong
Those of us who work with books for a living have a romantic reverence for physical books. There’s something about the feel, the smell, the heft, and the experience of sitting with a book and reading off the printed page that can’t be replicated by any digital experience.
Print books still sell well. In 2022, people in the US bought 789 million printed books, down slightly from the year before but still well above 2019, before the pandemic started. Ebook revenue remained at about 8% of total industry book revenue. Ebooks are great, but most people still like print books.
More than a decade ago, a used bookstore I used to frequent in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts went out of business. A dumpster the size of an 18-wheel truck was parked on the curb outside, filled nearly to the brim with thousands and thousands of books. Students perched on the edges and waded within, picking through the yellowing volumes seeking finds worth keeping. It was eerily quiet, as if we’d stumbled upon a mass grave.
College students in university libraries seek information. They like it searchable and digital. Vermont State University’s president, Parwinder Grewal, cited student sentiment favoring digital access in a survey the university conducted.
The loss of the books — and the librarians — feels tragic and irreplaceable to me. But am I just behind the times?
Why it’s actually wrong
If you know what you’re looking for, digital access is superior. It’s searchable. It’s instant. Digitizing content so that it’s immediately accessible is a definite win.
The loss here is not in finding what you’re looking for. It’s in finding what you’re not looking for.
Nonfiction books are shelved by subject. This means when you find the book you’re seeking, there are other books like it nearby. Maybe you’ll stumble onto something interesting, a book that makes a connection you never would have suspected. Maybe you’ll just have an interesting encounter with the words of an author from decades ago — or from just last year — with a new perspective on the topic you’re looking into. Maybe you’ll just pull a book you weren’t seeking off the shelf because you like the look of it — because some cover designer from 1988 created an irresistible cover graphic.
Serendipity is a positive development that happens by chance. That’s what happens in libraries. Human knowledge is full of unrealized connections. Those connections are waiting in dusty libraries. Your brain is ready to make those connections, turning old knowledge into new insights. Books are a brimming reservoir of serendipity; all that’s missing is your unique perpective.
I want today’s college students to be able to find what they’re looking for. But I want those volumes to stay in the library so they can find what they’re not looking for, too.
Keep the books. Find something else to cut. Because serendipity is too valuable to consign to the dumpster on the curb.