Laptops, WiFi and online catalogues make the traditional library obsolete.
Our engineering library used to be crowded with students studying and doing homework. Toward the end of the semester, with project deadlines and final exams approaching, every seat at every table would be occupied well into the extended hours. Lately, however, the library has been so empty that there is talk of folding this once-busy branch into the newly expanded main library.
Students have been attracted to the more centrally located main library not only by its location but also by its comfortable chairs, attractive décor and inviting atmosphere. But even at exam time, it is possible to find an unoccupied seat. Three things appear to have played a large role in altering how and where students study: the laptop computer, near-ubiquitous wireless Internet access and personal music systems like the iPod.
As its name implies, the laptop can be used without a table—or even a chair. It has become common to see students sitting cross legged on the floor beside an electrical outlet, typing away. With WiFi access, they can work on their e-mail, surf the Web or connect to the library catalogue. In many cases, they do not even have to move to consult an article or book—chances are increasingly good that it can be accessed from the library’s growing electronic collection.
Some students used to be driven to the library to get away from loquacious roommates, raucous parties or loud music that was not to their liking. Now, with their own favorite music downloaded into their iPod or similar device, they can blast it into their ears and so mask all other noise. Also, since libraries seem to have become increasingly tolerant of food and drink on the premises—the aroma of coffee, which has replaced that of cigarette smoke in the atmosphere, is seldom absent—all of a student’s senses can be occupied and so exclude all distractions.
In such a self-created cocoon, today’s student (and many a former student) can work away virtually anywhere, including the classroom. Increasingly, students in class can be found working on their laptops, perhaps taking digital notes or maybe watching a movie. With the ability to move back and forth between windows with the click of a button, the open laptop is a better cover for unauthorized reading than was the old textbook for concealing a comic book.
But not every student with an open laptop in class has tuned out the lecture. On more than one occasion I have had a student volunteer information that I did not have at my fingertips, showing my PowerPoint presentation to be as off-line as I was. The student was following along—perhaps even anticipating the next slide—and was supplementing what I was saying with what is available on the Web. Sometimes what the student had found in the digital library was so relevant and revealing that it had to be projected for the entire class to see.
There can be no question that the personal computer has changed the way students and every wired citizen works and learns. It should be no wonder that the traditional books-and-bookshelves library is a threatened species. In just a couple of decades, the once-staid institution has found its catalogues completely digitized and its books and journals increasingly so. The library is trying hard to keep up with the way today’s students study and do research, not to mention how professors and other users now work. I know that my way of doing research has changed: I do not visit the engineering branch library nearly as often as I used to. With my laptop connected to the Internet, I do not have to.
Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil
Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, is the
author of The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, which has just
been published by Alfred A. Knopf.