In a world where everyone is increasingly concerned with the ability of media to be personalized, it's only obvious that we'd start turning to "virtual" libraries rather than real ones. Who wants to peruse stacks of off-topic books when a computer could just display the most relevant material? Searching becomes easier, and our time is used for what we really want to do: read. This is obviously the next evolution of the digital world.
While the techy in me in intrigued by that idea, the romantic in me dies a little. The other day I was pointed to an article about a Boston prep school that has given away its 20,000 volume library in favor of a digital "learning center." Instead of being populated with physical copies of books, it will be web-ready with new technologies, laptop-friendly study areas, and 18 digital e-readers. The plan for the new facility really is cutting edge.
At the same time, I think it is a terrible act of theft. To remove books from the education of a generation is to rob them of the act of traditional reading - sitting back in a comfortable chair and physically turning the pages. When a person reads, something magical happens. They're transported to a new reality twined between the words on a page. I'm referring of course to recreational reading, but much of the same can be said about academia as well.
In graduate school, for instance, I was assigned a truly ghastly version of an accounting textbook. The text itself made no sense, the in-chapter examples were useless, and whole chunks of text was just plain wrong. My saving grace came in the form of margin notes left by the 8 previous owners of the book. Different examples, in-class notes, and page corrections made the difference between my deeper understanding of the field and that of my peers who studied twice as hard only to receive lower exam scores.
You can't highlight a web page. You can't scribble notes in the margin of an ebook. And you can't stumble by chance onto a dusty volume in the library when browsing an electronic catalog. A lot is lost when traditional libraries are fully digitized. While I will never argue against progress, something must be said about the wholesale dismissal of years of academic (and recreational) tradition. Books can live alongside computers quite easily (I own an extensive library and an e-reader).
As my friend John put it:
Paper books and eBooks are a great both-and situation, not an either-or.