Are libraries becoming obsolete? You might think so when you enter the library at the University of Texas. Most of its 90,000 books are gone.
In their place: a coffee shop, more chairs and tons of computers. In order to make room for multimedia services and access to e-journals, the school has followed the lead of many others, including the Universities of Georgia, Arizona, Iowa and Washington, which have jettisoned books in favour of computers.
To calm the rabid bibliophiles reading this, I'll note that the books at the University of Texas aren't gone for good and are currently being held in other libraries on campus, although students have to ask reference librarians to retrieve copies.
The move from bound books to bits has been gaining momentum for some time. The mammoth Project Gutenburg, a volunteer-run effort to digitize public domain books and journals, has been running since 1971. As of September 2005, almost 17,000 free books were in the catalogue ( gutenberg.org).
As part of its bid to take over the world one business venture at a time, Google is the latest player to digitize print material. Instead of scanning just public domain books (copyrights typically last for the life of the author plus 50 years), Google Print has raised the ire of many authors by scanning "the full text of every book ever written" before distribution deals have been hammered out.
Not that this is necessarily a non-stop growth area. Studies have shown that comprehension drops when people are faced with text on-screen compared to the same text on paper.
Researchers are at a loss to explain this discrepancy, but some have suggested that newspapers and books allow space for annotation and are more portable and adapt to more spaces.
There's also something to be said for the experience of sitting down and reading a book. The subtle ways you can shift a page in your hands, the way the paper crinkles under your fingers it all contribute to a sense of comfort that increases retention of material.
Recently, while researching a trip to Cuba online, some friends and I opened a PDF map that had clearly been scanned rather than created electronically.
Havana was bisected by a feathery crease that was so defined that it actually caught the shadow of the scanner's glare, which made us feel connected to the person who put the map on the scanner.
This is subtly acknowledged in the advances of desktop publishing programs designed to simulate print material. The closer they come to matching the gestalt of analog reading, the more successful they are deemed.
Zinio (zinio.com) is an online magazine reader that offers virtual subscriptions to everything from Foreign Policy to Playboy.
Users can run all the pages across the screen to "thumb" through an issue and highlight favourite passages for later perusal. I wouldn't be surprised if newer programs come with an accompanying scent CD so you can smell the pages of a freshly bound journal.
The experience of reading print material has been chased by the e-publishing industry for years, but there's clearly a division of function between reading the Sunday paper and scanning the headlines in a Monday morning e-mail.
Blogs, the shining jewel of e-reading, are successful precisely because they contain messages designed specifically for the medium of the Internet and demand to be read in non-linear ways by following links or checking out embedded photos and videos to create context.
So don't discount the old school too soon. As Book City says on its bookmark: "Introducing the new Bio-Optic Organized Knowledge device BOOK, a revolutionary breakthrough in technology; no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries. Even a child can operate it."