Vermont State University’s plan to trash the books in its libraries — and crush serendipity

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.

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  1. I think there is a tendency to romanticize libraries in just the ways that have been done here. Here’s my question: when was the last time that you, personally, went to a library and spent time browsing the shelves? Particularly the nonfiction shelves.

    I work in a large university library. Every day I see what’s happening and, trust me, people are not coming into the library to spend time looking at the books shelved near the one they are interested in using. In fact, for the most part, they don’t even come into the library to get the specific book. They order it online and it is delivered to their office or their home or to a conveniently located book locker for them to pick up later.

    Perhaps browsing is happening in a completely different way today than it did back when getting a book meant you had to visit the library.

    And all those physical books that people so clearly love to hold and own? When the books are old (and often, not in good physical condition), those book owners expect that the library will take them and keep them. Ask any public librarian how many times people have tried to give their old Encyclopedia Britannicas to the library and are shocked to find the library doesn’t want them. Worse yet (and I have heard this personally as a librarian) are the people who want the library to take 20+ year old medical textbooks and either keep them or (and I am not making this up) “send them to Africa” where, they assume, people wish to be treated by people educated using outdated medical information.

    Yes, print books are a wonder. I, myself, love them. But we also need to think rationally about them, the cost to acquire them, store them, circulate them and, when the time comes, dispose of them. We need to think rationally about how people are finding and using information (including books). I’m not saying that the answer is an all-digital library. I am just saying that we need to think rationally about libraries.

  2. We can all remember a past event when someone decided to be rid of books. Nazis discovered they made an excellent way to roast marshmallows and to stay warm. Thereafter, the State decided what you would read, what you would learn, and then- believe. Could it happen again? What if some authority or even an AI program decided what books were worth digitizing or what books already digitized would be available? And who would it be making that decision?

    This is about realizing a labor savings by cutting eight jobs. This is corporate America- downsizing. By all means, keep managers and administrators- heck, we need them, but cut the labor force. We just saw what happened when Norfolk Southern cut train operations jobs and safety appliances and those who job it is to inspect and maintain them, as an economy move. Save a little here, pay a lot there.

    Am I supposed to believe that VSU is going to hurry up and digitize its numerous holdings so they can quickly enact this savings (not including books already available in digitized form from other sources)?

    On the community model idea- If someone takes a key trade book that others would like to be able to read and then keeps it indefinitely, do others have to wait until that party holds a yard or estate sale to get a copy? Another bad idea.