The First College in the U.S. to Open Without Any Books in its Library

Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland has just opened, with 550 students attending the first day of classes this week. The newly-built campus has a gorgeous library building, but no plans to stock it with books. Instead, it will be the nation's first all-digital college library. But it gets weirder than that.

It's a scenario that science fiction writer Vernor Vinge predicted in his near-future novel Rainbows End, where the UC San Diego library grinds all of its books up in a machine that uses shotgun sequencing techniques to reassemble the books in (slightly error-prone) digital form. At Florida Polytechnic, there are no books to recycle — instead, there are software programs that allow students to access e-books in a variety of ways.

Librarians will also no longer work at a reference desk. Instead, the school calls it a "success desk."

Writing for Reuters, Letitia Stein notes:

Without stacks to organize, librarians staffing the main reference desk, which is called a success desk, will steer students to tutoring resources and train them in managing digital materials.

While the library is not paperless, students are discouraged from using its printers too much, Miller said. They can buy traditional textbooks in the bookstore, or digital texts when available.

Old-fashioned books can be requested on loan from libraries at Florida's 11 other public universities.

Florida Polytechnic budgeted $60,000 to buy titles through software allowing students one free browse. With the second click, the university purchases the digital book.

"Instead of the librarian putting books on the shelf that I think would be relevant, the students are choosing," Miller said ...

"Digital in some ways is better. People can find things easier, and they can discover more things by accident," said Carrie Russell, a policy analyst for the American Library Association.

There's a lot of weird stuff going on here. First of all, the university is allowing students to determine how to spend their $60 thousand library budget for e-books? What if a student clicks on a book that turns out to be utterly useless for everyone but that student? I'm not sure whether that's a good idea.

Also, it's interesting to hear a library expert, Carrie Russell, say that it's easier to browse and discover things by accident in a digital environment. Defenders of brick-and-mortar bookstores have argued the opposite, saying that the experience of wandering among bookshelves inspires serendipitous discoveries, while searching a database yields only the exact results you set out to find. While you can find related books in a database, it is unlikely you'll stumble across an unrelated but helpful book while searching for another one by title.

Plus, with only one free read of each book allowed, how likely is it that Florida Polytechnic students will have the chance to browse unfamiliar works?

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