Cherish the Books

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Source for all the photos in this post is at the click-through

So today I finally stepped foot in the Hunt Library for the first time. The vaunted, heralded, Hunt Library, the Library of the Future, the coolest building on campus, home of the Apple Technology Showcase and the iPearl Immersion Theatre (it’s…a room made entirely of screens, I think), home of the Center for Emerging Issues (“I’ve got an emerging issue for you,” Greg would joke, but seriously, is there a more pretentious name? What do they do all day? I’m not sure they could tell me if I asked), home of the Gaming Design Center and the Creativity Room and the “Bookbot.”

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The library is an architectural gem of sorts – not entirely to my taste, but I have to admire its stark modernity, its refusal to bow to conventional aesthetics, the proud curves of its steel and glass. The interior is new and sparkling and everything – literally everything – is digital. The donor wall is all LED lights, the tabletops have computers – the tabletops ARE computers – a giant scrolling screen curves in a spiral through three floors in the atrium.

students_in_immersion_theater

But….the books! The books are an afterthought. No one goes to Hunt for the books. You go to hang out with all the ipads or play in the giant video game room or study in the “Rain Garden Reading Room” (really) or to print prosthetic hands on the 3D printers or if you’re bored (and how could you ever be BORED at The Hunt Library!) to watch the robots that retrieve the books through the two-story glass wall in the atrium.

"The Stacks"

I give you,”The Stacks”

There are, in fact, books in Hunt – I have seen, on occasion while searching at old, musty D.H. Hill, a few novels that are listed in the Hunt collection, and even some archival stuff, rare editions and the like – but you wouldn’t really know that there are books there. I was taken aback by the sight of the “stacks” in the atrium – towering, endless rows of metal lockers, encased behind a wall of glass, and several cranelike contraptions with arms that reach out and retrieve the books from their vaults when you request them. You never touch those books at Hunt. You don’t browse the books at Hunt. You must come with a goal, and leave with that goal achieved, and you won’t likely stumble across much on the way. There are some open stacks in the reading room, but my impression is that most people just don’t come to Hunt for the books.

Everybody thinks the bookbots are awesome – even I did, at first, because it is a neat concept – but when I saw it, when I really thought about it, it disturbed me. I mean, what’s the point? What do we gain by being able to play around on a computer table while a robot fetches our books? Efficiency. I’ll give them that.

But what do we lose?

A few nights ago I wanted to get some novels to read during camp, some ones that have been on my list for awhile, and so I trekked over to old, musty D.H. Hill with a list of the call numbers and I headed up to the narrow warrens of the 6th floor stacks, and for a little while I lost myself. I found the books I came in for, but in browsing I found others that looked even more interesting. I left with several authors I haven’t read before. If it had been like Hunt, that never would have happened, because there is no chance to browse. There’s no chance of surprise or discovery.

This video claims differently – it says that by using the library’s “virtual browse” feature we don’t lose the “magical serendipity” (they really call it that) of stumbling upon a book you didn’t know you needed or wanted. I haven’t tried it, so maybe they are right.

But when I need books, for research or for pleasure, from the library, I always need to go look at them. I need to hold them and see their heft, page through the index, consider the table of contents, the first few pages. The list of call numbers and titles doesn’t give me that. I think that Hunt would drive me nuts. Or, rather, I’d drive the librarians and their robots nuts, because I’d probably ask them to get all of the books on a subject and let me look at them and pick the ones I want.

I suppose it’s worth noting that I have a kindle, and I love it, and I frequently purchase books on Amazon, so how is that different from what happens at Hunt? It’s hard for me to put into words, but I think it has to do with the purpose of a library. You can get a sense, when you walk into D.H. Hill, that the place is not much without its stacks. Walking into Hunt – well, it’s much more about the toys. At this camp I’m working at, we took buses of 30 kids to Hunt for two nights last week. They were all super excited to go and spent several hours there – playing with all the toys. Nobody would’ve signed up for a trip to D.H. Hill.

And there is something to be said, I think, for understanding how a library works. How books are shelved and where to look for them and to find them yourself. That’s all eliminated at Hunt. I don’t really think efficiency outweighs that.

I’m sure that Hunt is a spectacular place for the engineering students, with all its technology, but the impression I got – from the way the university touts the place and from the way students talk about it and from the way the building looks – is that it’s really about showing off. They poured so much money into this place, and some of it well spent – I think libraries should have the best technology available – but it doesn’t feel like a library. They should call it the Hunt Technology Center. The books are treated like relics, not like timeless objects. In order to make them palatable we must smother them in technology – look, kids, ROBOTS are going to get your books, isn’t that COOL?

UPDATED: I received a thoughtful response from David Hiscoe of the NC State Libraries, who made me feel slightly ashamed for being so flippant in my assessment of Hunt. I also must add that I was incorrect in my assertion that Hunt will one day become the “main” library of NCSU – in fact, both Hunt and D.H. Hill will remain sister libraries, which is a relief to me (what can I say, I don’t want to have to trek to Centennial every time I need something). I responded to him with what I thought was a more evenhanded assessment of the place, and I appreciate his response.

Greg and I and a visiting friend toured the library today from top to bottom and I was able to spend some more time familiarizing myself with the place. There is a lot that is wonderful about Hunt – particularly the graduate student commons, the study rooms, the easy access to resources, and the variety of reading and study spaces available to students. I am not entirely anti-Hunt. But I do stand by my original discomfort with the bookbot. I think Hunt offers us book-lovers a good opportunity to talk about what libraries should do, why they matter, and where they are going in this era of increasing reliance on technology.

I debated whether to delete this post, but I think I’ll keep it, with some minor editing. But I do want to acknowledge that the NC State Libraries staff is a real asset to the university. I have had nothing but positive and helpful experiences at BOTH libraries during my time here so far. I may be a fusty old woman who prefers nine floors of slightly smelly stacks to the super-modern ambience of Hunt, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the enormous amount of care and effort that this university puts into its libraries.

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One thought on “Cherish the Books

  1. Hi, Clarissa:

    Thanks for your thoughtful post about the Hunt Library.

    As you can imagine, the staff over here at the NCSU Libraries is a pretty committed bunch of book lovers ourselves (there are, btw, almost 40,000 of the most recent and most used books and journals on open shelving in Hunt), and we really hope that you warm to new library over time.

    We do have some good news for you immediately though. First, there’s no plan to eventually move the bulk of NC State’s books over to Hunt and make it our “main library.” D. H. Hill will remain one of NC State’s two main libraries for as far into the future as we can see.

    And by moving 1.5 million books in our engineering, textiles, and technology collection over to Hunt where they are closer to those who need them on Centennial Campus, we finally have the room to breath a little in Hill—and to make some of our dreams come true for it as funds become available to do the work.

    You’ll soon notice some nice renovations that will add much-needed study seating, for instance (the crisis in study seating is one of the main reasons we chose the bookBot for Hunt—it uses 1/9 the room of conventional shelving, which freed up space for us to start addressing the huge gap between the UNC system’s recommendation that we be able to seat 20% of our students—before Hunt, we could only seat less than 5%).

    And up on the second floor of Hill we’re already putting in a Visualization Studio that will give students and faculty on this campus easy access to some of the social computing technologies that people are so excited about over at Hunt.

    Students, as always, help us guide where we are heading with the Libraries through our Student Advisory Board. We meet regularly during the fall and spring semesters, and would love to welcome you to the group.

    David Hiscoe
    NCSU Libraries

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