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What impact will the digital age have on thinking?

The day after commencement last spring, our engineering branch library closed its doors to users — for good. Throughout most of the semester, the library had been crowded with book-laden moving carts queued up near the exit, waiting to be rolled onto trucks that then transported them elsewhere on campus, to be merged with the general collection.

The engineering library was among the last on Science Drive to be abandoned. A year earlier, the closing of the chemistry library had led the trend. Space in the research building was considered too dear to be occupied by shelves of aging books that were consulted less and less.

We used to have a separate math/physics library, but it was merged into the engineering library in 2001. With the increasing focus on interdisciplinary research, many faculty members had had to visit separate branch libraries to consult relevant resources. Consolidating them made sense, at the time.

Of course, adding all the books and bound periodicals from one overcrowded library to another overcrowded library threatened to violate the law of conservation of volumes, and so many were moved to offsite storage, euphemistically known as the Library Service Center. To all but historians, this proved to go virtually unnoticed. The library, let alone the stacks, had already begun to be as unpopulated as a ghost town.

Libraries have always needed more space, and library closings would thus appear to have been counterintuitive were it not for the coincidental occurrence of the digital revolution. As we all know, for some time now, journals, serials, and even books have been becoming increasingly available in electronic form, which is the principal reason that the bricks-and-mortar library has become dispensable.

The space formerly occupied by our branch library began to be renovated over the summer. The lowest of its three floors, the one that formerly held the bound periodicals, now contains much-needed new classroom, seminar and project space, plus an “information commons” that will contain kiosks at which students and faculty can access virtual library resources for literature searches and the like. One room of the renovated space will serve as an office for our engineering librarian, who will be available for consultation on the vagaries of negotiating the not-always-transparent library website.

The open laptop connotes a work in progress, not a coherent treatise.

The information commons will extend up the central open stairway into what used to be the main floor of the engineering library and will share that space with another seminar room, more project laboratories, and a “hatchery space to support design project learning and entrepreneurship/commercialization.” The third floor will be converted into offices for engineering academic deans and ancillary student services.

The nature of this conversion highlights the changing character of engineering education in particular and the academic enterprise in general. Books used to be the most overt symbols of higher education (think of the seals of Harvard, Princeton and Yale), and a great library went hand in hand with a great university. Now the books, at least in their bound manifestation, are, if not dispensable, at least depositable in more remote locations. The open book has been replaced with the open laptop, and it should not surprise us if the latter soon comes to be depicted on the seal of some new distance-learning university.

Some laptop computers are called notebooks, but “notebook” connotes a work in progress, not a finished treatise that ties the notes together into a coherent whole. Without real books, there may not be real thought. And even entrepreneurs and commercializers are likely to be more successful if they are bound by the rigors of thoughtful composition. The books have been moved. Will they also be forgotten?


Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His book, Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design, is now available in paperback.




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