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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 6, 2010

Stanford creating 'bookless library'

By Lisa M. Krieger
San Jose Mercury News

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Books are loaded onto carts at Stanford University's physics library for shipping to a storage facility. The library is converting to an all-electronic research facility.

DAI SUGANO | San Jose Mercury News via MCT

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SAN JOSE, Calif. One chapter is closing and another is opening as Stanford University moves toward the creation of its first "bookless library."

Box by box, decades of past scholarship are being packed up and emptied from two old libraries, Physics and Engineering, to make way for the future: a smaller but more efficient and largely electronic library that can accommodate the vast, expanding and interrelated literature of Physics, Computer Science and Engineering.

"The role of this new library is less to do with shelving and checking out books and much more about research and discovery," said Andrew Herkovic, director of communications and development at Stanford Libraries.

Libraries are the very heart of the research university, the center for scholarship. But the accumulation of information online is shifting their sense of identity.

For 40 years, the metal shelves of the modest Physics and Engineering libraries were magnets to thousands of students and faculty, including Nobel Prize winners Douglas Osheroff, Robert Laughlin and Steven Chu, who now directs the U.S. Department of Energy.

On the wall of the Physics Library are 16 original prints by photographer Ansel Adams, dedicated to pioneering physicist Russell Varian. A cardboard cutout of a cheerful Albert Einstein greets visitors. A playful collection of clocks illustrating the randomness of time decorate a wall.

The future library on the second floor of "The Octagon," the centerpiece of the university's new science and engineering quad that opens later this year will offer a stark contrast.

It is only half the size of the current Engineering Library, but saves its space for people, not things. It features soft seating, "brainstorm islands," a digital bulletin board and group event space. There are few shelves and it will feature a self-checkout system.

It is developing a completely electronic reference desk, and there will be four Kindle 2 e-readers on site. Its online journal search tool, called xSearch, can scan 28 online databases, a grant directory and more than 12,000 scientific journals.

Several factors are driving the shift.

Stanford is running out of room, restricted by an agreement with Santa Clara County, Calif., that limits how much it can grow. Increasingly, the university seeks to preserve precious square footage. Adding to its pressures is the steady flow of books. Stanford buys 100,000 volumes a year 273 every day.

"Most of the libraries on campus are approaching saturation," Herkovic said. "For every book that comes in, we've got to find another book to send off."

This competition for space means that many, perhaps most, books will be shipped to a Livermore, Calif., storage facility.

Stanford's plight is not unique. Four miles off its Durham, N.C., campus, Duke University has a storage facility, with shelves 30 feet high, to hold 15 million books. Harvard's repository is 35 miles away in Southborough, Mass.

"You just get to the point where you're busting at the seams," said Lori Goetsch, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries and dean of libraries at Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan. which stores its books more than 80 miles away, in Lawrence.

The sciences are the perfect place to test bookless libraries, librarians say. In math, online books tend to render formulas badly. And those in the humanities, arts and social sciences still embrace the discoveries made while browsing.