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A book-free library?

November 04, 1998

Is a library really a library if its patrons can't browse through the stacks in search of books? Students at West Virginia's Marshall University say "no," but the dilemma the administration there faces is one every library will be confronted with sooner or later.

Marshall recently completed a new $31 million library building named in honor of John Deaver Drinko. But instead of moving all the books from the old James E. Morrow Library, only half the volumes were shifted, meaning that if students or faculty want a book, they must request it and wait for it to be delivered.

For scholars accustomed to reading and taking notes in small cubbyholes in the stacks, the change is irritating, especially for those who need access to multiple sources. Students have started a petition drive asking for open access to all books.

But the administration notes that Marshall is not doing anything that universities across the country haven't done already. Little-used volumes at many universities are stored in warehouses with restricted access to cut down on the need for staffing. In such places, each stored book is retrieved only by request.

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As regular users of the public library system, we agree with Marshall's disgruntled faculty members that there's no substitute for browsing through one volume after another in quick succession, until you find one that contains the information you're seeking. But with the number of academic books being published each year, the impossibility of building one facility to store them all is clear as well.

Our suggestion would be to give faculty members and selected students research permits, for lack of a better term, that would give them access to the stacks for a limited time, with the understanding that there would be no staffing other than security personnel on duty, and that ferreting out the right volumes would be up to them alone.

For non-researchers, this problem may seem trivial, but it's one every community library will face eventually. It's also one that a society built on the idea of free access to information shouldn't take lightly.

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