In 2005, when the University of Chicago started a US$81 million renovation of a major library building, one of the main objectives was to ensure that its collection of printed books in the social sciences and humanities would remain under one roof.
That goal was achieved six years later. However, it also meant that a good part of the library's print collection, while technically being "under the library roof", had been moved "under the ground". The renovation included a subterranean automated system that could store and retrieve up to 3.5 million books.
Chicago's library project could well represent the end of an era - one that saw colleges and universities spending millions of dollars so that printed books could be housed at on-campus libraries.
In my 25-year career as an academic librarian, I have witnessed the explosion of digital technology into academic life, and played a part in the ongoing struggle to balance digital information with the familiar solidity of print in academic library collections.
An increasingly popular strategy for managing overcrowded stacks is moving books to high-density, low-cost, off-campus storage. This too can be met with resistance from faculty and students. For example, at Syracuse University, faculty reacted with what was described as "fury" to plans by its librarians to move low-use books to an off-campus storage facility.
While I believe that there will always be a place for the book in the hearts of academics, it is far less likely that there will be a place for the book, or at least for every book, on the academic campus.
Keeping a printed book in a library is not cheap. The most recent analysis pegs the total cost of keeping one book in an open library stack (the kind that allows browsing) at US$4.26 per year (in 2009 dollars).
High-density shelving - a less costly alternative to open stacks - comes at US$0.86 per book per year (again, in 2009 dollars).
And given the costs, academic financial officers blanch at proposals to build new on-campus storage capacity for thousands, in some cases millions, of books.
This is not to say that academic library construction and renovation have come to an end. But rather than being conceived of as on-campus book warehouses, academic libraries are today being reimagined as spaces in which learning, collaboration and intellectual engagement take centre stage.
Look at the following examples.
At Virginia Commonwealth University, a Web page providing information on the construction of a new library building for the Monroe Park campus proclaims: "Ninety per cent of the new space will be for student use, not for storing books or materials."
The University of California, Santa Barbara, is in the midst of a project that will add 60,000 sq ft of new library space and renovate 92,000 sq ft of existing library space.
The stated goals of the project include such desiderata as "expanded wireless access", "additional and enhanced group study and collaboration spaces" and a "faculty collaboration studio".
Additional book capacity is not part of the plan.
In an even more extreme case, the University of Michigan's US$55 million renovation of its Taubman Health Sciences Library (completed this year) has removed all print books from the facility in order to accommodate classrooms and "collaboration rooms".
An entire floor is now devoted to "clinical simulation rooms", where medical students hone their diagnostic and clinical skills through simulated hands-on practice.
All these developments are part of a mainstream trend in which the printed book, though still part of the academic library ensemble, is being relegated to the role of supporting player - it will no longer be the lead actor.
NEW STORAGE OPTIONS
In the face of such changes, academic librarians have no choice but to take action.
The challenge, however, is that there are simply too many print books and not enough space on campus to store them.
The most obvious solution is "weeding" - the library profession's term for removing books from a collection. Unfortunately, even though weeding does create space for new books, it also incurs significant labour and disposal costs. Moreover, it can meet with stiff resistance from both faculty and students.
An increasingly popular strategy for managing overcrowded stacks is moving books to high-density, low-cost, off-campus storage.
This too can be met with resistance from faculty and students.
For example, at Syracuse University, faculty reacted with what was described as "fury" to plans by its librarians to move low-use books to an off-campus storage facility.
Even so, the practice has become routine for many academic libraries. Estimates indicate that, as of last year, 75 high-density academic library storage facilities had been built in the United States.
Often located where land is cheaper and more readily available than on crowded college campuses, climate-controlled, high-density storage facilities house books and other library materials using space-saving compact shelving.
Items in such facilities are not browseable, but their bibliographic records remain in the library catalogue, and the items themselves can be recalled, if they are needed by a library user.
The estimate given above includes both facilities that serve a single library as well as several shared mega-facilities.
The Research Collections and Preservation Consortium (ReCAP) - a partnership between Columbia University, The New York Public Library and Princeton University - houses over 12 million volumes.
The Minnesota Library Access Centre - which serves the University of Minnesota, along with a consortium of smaller libraries around the state - has a capacity of 1.5 million volumes.
The University of Texas and Texas A&M shared repository, which opened in 2013, has the capacity to take more than a million volumes, and can be expanded to accommodate two million.
The state-wide OhioLINK system includes five regional repositories whose shared capacity approaches 10 million volumes.
The University of California's Northern and Southern Regional Library Facilities can house a combined 13 million volumes.
However, because of the high costs involved, books are also being weeded out as they are moved.
For example, rather than keeping five copies of Book X, each deposited by a separate library, a shared storage facility might retain only a single "best copy", to be shared by all the contributing libraries.
That Texas' high-density repository is now home to books that are the shared property of the University of Texas and Texas A&M is a rather astounding state of affairs for anyone familiar with the length and depth of the rivalry between the two institutions.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
Apart from building shared repositories, academic libraries are also developing distributed storage projects, as a way of reducing the pressure on library stack space.
Rather than relying on large repositories, such distributed storage programmes are based on multi-library agreements.
A member library agrees to hold an archival print copy of a bound journal or monograph, so that other members of the consortium can dispose of their copies.
Academic librarians have formed a task force to investigate the creation of a distributed shared monograph archive on behalf of HathiTrust, a shared digital preservation repository that contains scans of millions of printed books belonging to a coalition of academic libraries.
The proposed HathiTrust monograph archive will allow those same academic libraries to reduce the footprint of their on-campus collections. The system will see them rely on shared archival copies of low-use, mostly public-domain books whose full texts are available digitally through HathiTrust.
There is sure to be resistance to any future plans to move books out of campus book stacks, but the inescapable calculus of more print books and less on-campus space to house them will, in the end, overwhelm resistance.
Academic library consultant Lizanne Payne accurately sums up the current situation.
"On most campuses, library shelf space is finite and even shrinking," she said. "Gone are the days when a proactive library director could argue successfully for a library expansion to house more books."
Traditionalists might not like it, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, in the long term, campuses will not require ever more space to house printed books.
- The writer is Deputy University Librarian at University of California, Merced.
- This article first appeared in the conversation.com, a website that carries analysis by academics and researchers.