In the Future Universities Will Not Need Libraries

Recently I heard a college administrator say that in 15-20 years we will not recognize higher education.  He may be correct.  Given the number of changes in the past ten years and the kind of changes that are coming, how colleges and universities educate those who matriculate is likely to shift in ways we cannot now imagine.  As an analogy consider this: who could have imagined 20 years ago that in our hands we can hold a device that links us to the Internet and nearly every person on the planet (those with technology)?  The computing power in each smart phone was unthinkable 20 years ago.

The Lanier Theological Library's Main Hall
The Lanier Theological Library’s Main Hall

That leads me to college and university libraries.  Will we need them?  Many college administrators are answering “no” and beginning to scale back the resources allocated to providing students with a library.  Not that they will go away completely; but they are likely to become unrecognizable compared to libraries in the past.

Libraries after all are expensive to build and maintain.  The space required to house books, journals and other resources costs a great deal.  The staff needed to run the library too is costly, especially if the library is open the kind of hours students want to use it.  9 am to 5 pm just won’t cut it. Then there are the books and journals themselves.  They are expensive to acquire, process and keep on the shelves.   The amount of material being published these days is off the charts.  If you take a single discipline and consider what is published annually, it could well run into thousands of books and journals.  Multiply that times all the disciplines offered in most major universities (often 50 or more), and you see that maintaining an up-to-date library for students and community is a daunting proposition.

So why go to the expense and effort when 99% of the knowledge and information in the world is available on the Internet? All you need is a laptop and/or a smart phone and access to the World Wide Web, and you can research nearly any question.  At least that is how some people are thinking about it these days.  Make sure every student has access to these devices and you don’t really need a library card or a library for that matter.  Vendors are making available every book published in digital format.  The same is true for most of the best journals.  If they are not available today, they will be by 2020.  You don’t need a book to view an ancient manuscript.  The Dead Sea Scrolls are just a few clicks away.   You don’t need a CD to listen to Bach.  It’s available on the World Wide Web. What we need is a device and access.  Perhaps that is how college and university libraries will morph.  They will become portals to all the knowledge in the world. Publishers, libraries, museums, and other educational resources will figure out ways to monetize their collections—they already have.

So library space could be reallocated to other purposes necessary for the “modern” university.   Library staff would become technology experts and be available for consultation with students and faculty.  Those who can’t make the change will be retired early or made redundant.  After a while attrition will do its deed. Millions of dollars could be re-routed for other necessities: student services, satellite campuses, distance education, or purposes we can’t imagine today.  Students wouldn’t need to get dressed and go to the library; they could sit in their pajamas and surf the NET from the comfort of their dorms. Instead of sitting at a library table they could enjoy a good cup of coffee or tea in their favorite shop as they access the world.  Think of the time and effort saved.  No more walking or driving to the library.  We can save a buck and save the planet all in one day.

Now, before I put my cards on the table, what do you think? In the future will colleges and universities need a library?