Does the ‘library of the future’ need books?

Every day I cross Ellis Avenue to avoid the construction zone of the University of Chicago’s emerging Mansueto Library, whose elliptical crystal dome caps four underground floors where 3.5 million books will be kept in compact storage.
When library users at ground level request books (via the library website) they will be retrieved from the depths by robot cranes.
And every day as I pass this promising dome, I wonder: did it occur to the movers and shakers that they could just digitize those books? saving most of the library’s $81 million estimated cost, perhaps for use in the construction of a trauma center, and mulching all that aging paper and cardboard, perhaps for use in grocery bags?
Of course it did. The Mansueto Library will include a state-of-the-art digitization center.
Beneath that emerging mushroom cloud is a spectacular hospice for relics of the age of mechanical reproduction.
As digitization proceeds, it seems to me, the storage of the paper books will become increasingly cumbersome. Digitized pages will be immediately accessible via the library website without the need of robot cranes, much less librarians. In fact, patrons won’t have to go to the library.
As that day nears, how will we regard the 3.5 million volumes of ballast in the four-story basement? Surely there will be some gems down there: rare books, common books enhanced with marginalia by Enrico Fermi or Saul Bellow. But the University of Chicago has some of the world’s best special-collections librarians to catch those gems. The remainders will be, like most relics of the age of mechanical reproduction, abundantly available elsewhere.
Now imagine 3.5 million hard drives, or flash drives, or not-yet-invented drives, filling that compact-storage space. That’s a lot of ebooks.
They call it “the library of the future,” but Mansueto might be The Library of The Transition.
The future of education just got a little bleaker: New York State officials released data this week indicating that more than half of all the high school students in the state are not ready for college or well-paid careers. While it’s long been understood that education and income do not always keep lockstep — in 2005, the Daily News reported that CUNY, the public university system in New York, was trying to attract an assistant professor of English with the princely salary of $37,000 while at the same time offering $77,000 for a plumber — the fact that so many students are graduating high school without possessing basic literacy and math skills should sound an alarm.
College has become a means to an end, a project championed by politicians and educators alike with one goal in mind: global competition. But in all the rhetoric about the importance of obta ining a college degree, no distinctions are made about what kind of degree will be most useful, or from which schools. Instead, a simple formula is presented: go to college, join the middle class, make America more competitive. The danger in such a formula is that it misleads students into thinking that success means jumping through a series of hoops. As long as you get that diploma, you’ ll be golden. Why wouldn’t they, then, take the path of least resistance?
If you graduate with a degree in philosophy, English, or art history, you’re qualified to do exactly nothing in this global economy. After graduation, the practically minded used to go to law school, but even that’s become a dubious pursuit if all you’re looking for is job security and a living wage. Everyone else has to fend for themselves, to try and find some way to apply their finely tuned critical thinking skills to the world outside academe. But this can be a wonderful, lifelong challenge that fewer and fewer students will choose to embrace the more mechanized primary and secondary education becomes. Ironic ally, such a mechanized approach presents a threat to the very idea of education. The data New York State just released proves just how data-driven our schools must become if they’re going to survive, where students are viewed en masse and metrics are paramount. In such a system, who would bother studying ancient philosophy or struggle to interpret a particularly dense piece of experimental fiction ? Many kids will continue to fail, drop out, and come to hate school. Savvy students, meanwhile, will simply say: “Show me the money.”

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