L.A. Cicero Helen Josephine

Helen Josephine, head librarian for the Terman Library, said the Engineering School has been planning the state-of-the-art library for three years.

'Bookless' library at Stanford looks to the future

The move to the new Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Center was an opportunity to do more than just haul books from one building to another – "It's going to be gorgeous," says the head librarian.

Jack Hubbard

Empty shelves at Terman Library makes you wonder where all the books have gone. Check your laptop.

Only a short while ago, Stanford's Engineering Library had 80,000 books on its shelves. Now they will have a fraction of that: About one-eighth of the books will remain.

No, it isn't the aftermath of a flash fire or an academic yard sale. It's a window to the future: the planned progression from the written word on bound sheets of paper to the electronic byte. The changes mark the forefront of a movement toward the "bookless library."

An "electronic library" might be more exact.

The Engineering Library's move from the Terman Engineering Center to the new Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Center was an opportunity to do more than just haul books from one building to another – and the librarians jumped at the chance to create a state-of-the-art library.

"It's going to be gorgeous," said Helen Josephine, head librarian for the Engineering Library. "There's a lot of new technology going into this.

"We've been working on this for the last three years – we're anxious to get in and get going. I'm really excited about it. I can't wait to show it off to the students," she said. She'll get that chance when the library opens on Aug. 2, with a campus-wide invitation to tour the new engineering center and library on Sept. 8.

The new library at the Huang Center will be less than half the size of its predecessor at Terman – about 6,000 square feet compared with the earlier 16,000 (and that's not counting footage from the physics and computer science libraries that have merged into the new library as well).

The revamped library will have a completely electronic reference desk with four Kindle 2 wireless reading devices. It will be the first on campus to have a self-checkout and book security system; by this fall, it also will have 15 ebook readers that library patrons may take home like regular books. Librarians will not be staffing a desk to help students and faculty, said Josephine, "but we'll be more available when they need us." Available, that is, through email, online chatting and Facebook.

An online journal search tool called xSearch will scan 28 online databases, a grant directory and more than 12,000 scientific journals.

The library has a "totally open floor plan," said Josephine, with private study space by the windows, an area for the remaining books (including cases for some books from the late engineering Professor Stephen Timoshenko's personal collection), moveable furniture, a few big tables for students to work together (one will have a large monitor to help students collaborate electronically) and wireless access with lots of power outlets. The library includes a digital bulletin board at the entryway that will display RSS feeds updating visitors with the latest research.

In all this, there's not much room for books. As a result, the other 70,000 books will be going to an off-site storage facility in Livermore.

Not everyone is enthusiastic: "It makes a lot of people nervous, the idea of a bookless library," said Andrew Herkovic, communications director for Stanford University Libraries. "In fact, some people really don't like that phrase. But it is very interesting; it's gotten a lot of press because it creates a sense of tension between the old and the new.

"Here at Stanford we believe strongly that there's a lot of continuity. We have the books, we keep the books, we think they are very important to retain. We just don't think they need to be on campus, accessible instantaneously for the researcher."

Part of the problem certainly is space for a library system that acquires about 100,000 books a year.

"There's a great deal of competition for available square footage and even in new buildings, maybe particularly in new buildings, we have to allocate space to where it will be best used," said Herkovic. "The perception is that now, in the case of engineering, we can get away with many fewer books on the shelf." In other words, the bookless library is a discipline-bound concept – don't expect it soon in the English Department.

But all bets are off for the long term: The Association of Research Libraries reports that libraries are now spending more of their money on electronic resources and less on books. Amazon's Jeff Bezos recently said that Kindle book sales have overtaken hardcover sales – quite an achievement considering the Kindle e-reader was launched less than three years ago.

"If you think about a library from several decades ago, there was a great deal of effort to retain every issue of every copy of all the journals that you're supposed to subscribe to and bind them and put them on the shelf so that they would be kept in good form for the long term," said Herkovic. "Nowadays we don't need to worry about that – we have electronic versions of those journals, we have electronic backups of those journals, we're very involved in digital preservation, and the whole practice of providing information to library users has changed a great deal because of the transition to electronic means."

What it means is that most Stanford students nowadays don't need to get off their chairs to find the information they need – they can find it on their laptops, or their smartphones, or their iPads.

That means, in turn, a very different role for librarians. So far, Josephine is looking forward to offering more services, more workshops, more one-on-one time with students in a visually stunning set of new spaces.