Interlude: In Defense of Books

Three years ago I set out to read one book from every aisle in the stacks of Cornell University’s Olin library. 60 books later (and nearly halfway through the third floor) I am certain that I would not have requested or sought out more than two of those books from other libraries, but I am a better, more knowledgeable, and more well-rounded person for it. In light of this experience, I believe that the Atlantic’s piece by Dan Cohen too readily leaps to an argument about efficiency: if a book is rarely read, it should be stored in the cheapest possible manner. The problem with this approach is that it places all of the burden on the reader and views libraries as serving targeted research more than general exploration. In order to request a book from long-term storage or from another library, I would have to identify a particular need for that particular book, probably because it was cited correctly and/or indexed well. When books are on shelves, I have the chance to pick one up simply because it is there, and at least flip through it to see if it is worth reading further. Universities can (and should) encourage students to do more than specialize, but to broaden their education. Libraries can burst information bubbles, but the risks of confirmation bias increase if the reader has to request the book. The mere presence of a physical book invites someone to pick it up without having a particular need for it, and may lead to more cross-pollination of ideas along the way. Keep the books. Protect, display, and celebrate the depth of thinking that they represent- they are the antidote to simplistic, sound bite-sized thinking. We should be good stewards of our (and the planet’s) resources, but moving books off-campus to create more co-working space is not the answer. Exploration is at least as important as efficiency in the pursuit of education.

To promote that goal, I’d suggest an experiment: require students to check out five books per semester that are not on the syllabus for any of their courses (and maybe that haven’t been checked out in a decade, per Mr. Cohen’s reference). I would hazard the guess that over the course of four years of college they’ll wind up reading a few of them, and some may even wind up cited in papers or articles.

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