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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Closed or open stacks, it doesn't matter

My alma mater, Georgia Tech, has announced a deal with Emory University that has the effect of moving Tech's library to Emory. As the two institutions noted, the existing collections of the two libraries have very little overlap because of the nature of the institutions. Suburban Emory has room to expand on its campus, but urban-core Tech does not. There will be economies of scale in operation after consolidated. The move will also allow Tech to reuse its two library buildings in the center of the campus. No doubt there is a feeding frenzy among professors and staff for that space. These are all good reasons to proceed with consolidation.

Not having any direct relationship with Tech since 1985, I find the move interesting because of what it says or implies about university libraries. Most technical journals in science, mathematics, and engineering have been digitized going back decades. Professors and students are now accustomed to browsing those journals online. The fact that the Tech collection of physical books and journals will move five miles away — not the easiest trip to make by MARTA, with parking constraints at Emory too — doesn't seem to be objectionable to anyone.

Many more technical journals are being published now than when I was a student at Tech (1972-76 and 1978-79). Conversely, fewer traditional books are being published. When I did research during grad school, I found that books from the 1950s and 1960s were a more efficient source material for me to use than journals. Why? Because a book typically had a full spectrum of information on a given topic, whereas journal articles were scattered across hundreds of feet of shelves. Online access makes that problem go away. Meanwhile the content of books that haven't been digitized becomes less relevant to scientists, mathematicians, and engineers each year.

Furthermore, between Google and Wikipedia, there is a lot of information readily available without having to go to a physical or virtual library. I know you're thinking that only a fool trusts Wikipedia completely. For many subjects, I agree. But on some specialized topics, Wikipedia can be quite good. An example is Wikipedia's article on Mellin transforms, a tool of mathematics that was central to my interest. This type of reliable information could take 30 minutes to find in a physical library under the best of circumstances, even with the help of a professional.

The irony, however, is that I became aware of Mellin transforms only because I browsed the stacks at the Tech library. That's how I ran across a book describing them. Emory's library is closed stacks, and the newly consolidated Tech-Emory library will be closed stacks too. I have read that NC State's new library is closed stacks. It's apparently an irresistible trend. Those of us who like to browse will have to be content with online access.