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Stanford's Bookless Library Heralds the Future of... Book Buying?


The e-book has arrived folks, and if Amazon's Kindle and Apple's new iPad with its slew of e-reader apps doesn't prove it, then ponder this: Stanford University's Engineering school may be entering an era of bookless libraries. 

NPR has been speaking to administrators inside Stanford's library systems, concentrating on the Engineering library. Like most technical libraries in educational institutions, the shelves were once thronged with periodical publications—large tomes packed with research papers, refreshed as frequently as every month, and vital for researchers who need to keep up to date with the latest state-of-the-art thinking. But according to the head of the library, Helen Josephine, over the last five years many if not most of the periodicals have switched to being digital publications. It makes sense for the publications, which don't have to worry about print costs, and it makes sense for the authors, who may see a shorter time delay before their articles get published. And readers searching for data inside the texts have a much easier time of it too, they can run a digital search, rather than thumbing through indexes.

The change in publication habits for periodicals, and plain ol' text books too, has been so severe that a new library building, commissioned in 2005 and due to open next month, actually has 85% less shelf capacity than the previous edifice. That's a massive reduction in storage volume, and a pure reflection of the fact that bytes don't weigh anything. It's also the next logical progression in the modernization of library systems. Remember card catalogs? They were once a staple of any visit to a library, and their often hand-typed and hand-annotated reference cards were vital for finding the right book in a collection. But the card index was a perfect contender for digital replacement, even in an era when computers were mainly text-based. First they came for my card catalog ... then they came for my books ...

When you remember that there's a huge push by traditional publishers and booksellers, like Barnes and Nobel and Borders, to sell digital books for e-reader devices (and recall that Google's getting in on the act) it's tempting to mark this year as the beginning of the end for mainstream use of paper and ink books. Bookstores like B&N will, at some point, not need to stock quite so many physical texts—in the manner of Stanford's libraries—and merely extend its in-store "bonus" e-content merchandising to get people onto its property. Imagine, in fact, that a future Borders store consists of a couple of physical copies of each book and a coffee store: You browse books while sampling a text, and then scan the QR code on its rear-face with your e-reader to buy a digital copy of the book. Is Stanford's library the first strong hint that this is coming sooner than we think?

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