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The Plugged-In Library of the Future

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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If you thought the success of the iPad, the Kindle, and Google Books had resolved whether electronic books did the job of physical books, forget that thought. Slate on Nov. 16 published yet another essay about the importance of the physicality of books, which probably adds nothing new to the debate but reminds us that people still have strong opinions about the need for books as physical objects. Then on Nov. 19th the Huffington Post published this, which similarly descries the changing world of electronic publishing, though with what success there has been considerable debate. And this love letter to various other love letters to the physicality of written expression came out in December in FT Magazine. All of which is to say, people are still talking and thinking about the importance of the physical in our relationship with the written word. I wouldn’t think of even expressing an opinion on whether these writers are correct, but it’s for sure the people building the just-opened James B. Hunt Library at North Carolina State University see things differently.

Its creators say the Hunt will be “nothing less than the best learning and collaboration space in the country” as it opens.

And it’s a closed-stack library.

I have myself yelled loudly against the very concept of closed stacks, and others are raising the same issue about the New York Public Library, so when I got the chance to wander around the James B. Hunt Library with the people behind the design of its systems, I jumped.This video gives a sense of what I saw.

This story from the News & Observer of Raleigh has some lovely up-to-date images. The Hunt is already an amazing place, and I’ll have much more to share about it now that it’s open and I can work with it and see how well it does what it sets out to do. But again: in the new information economy, the first thing that gets everybody’s attention is that it will have closed stacks. As the claim makes clear, library designers think about the library as a place where people work and create together, with access to both physical books and electronic information. It’s not a big box of books.

Like I said, lots more to come. Thanks to Maurice York, IT director, Kristin Antelman, assoc. director for the digital library, Patrick Deaton, assoc. director for learning spaces and capital management, and Wayne Clark, whose title is, seriously, Associate Research Director for the Institute for Next Generation IT Systems (ITng) within the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University.



Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. JGrcevich 1:07 pm 01/4/2013

    I too favor owning books in their physical form, their vary nature can’t be replaced by an I-Pad or Kindle or any other type of electronic media. I also like to browse both libraries and book stores. That intimate experience is being taken away by progress in the electronic arts. That is why I still by books, even though many have bought through places like Amazon. Things change, but don’t lose what is good in the name of progress.

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  2. 2. kornegay 1:26 pm 01/4/2013

    Huler didn’t talk much (yet?) about identifying these books in the first place. Many engineering and c.s. books are pretty easy to find in library catalogs, since their titles are likely to have concrete, easy-to-match keywords. Even so, all praise to strong budgets for excellent cataloging, which results in full and accurate records that lead to those matches.

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  3. 3. kornegay 1:41 pm 01/4/2013

    Oh,someone might want to fix that typo in the video. You know, the one about the scientests who checked out of libraries 10 or 15 years ago? oops.

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  4. 4. jcavin 3:47 pm 01/4/2013

    I love books too, but it depends on the publisher. Many publishers are constructing their books with very cheap paper and material that falls apart within just a few years. Of course digital media can be questionable too, digital formats can change rapidly over just a few years. I have been fortunate enough to view books created during the Renaissance. Wouldn’t it be grand if we had the technology to make our books last so they could be read in 500 years?

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  5. 5. huler 4:43 pm 01/4/2013

    thanks, @kornegay — fixed and uploading; will link to improved video. and yes, to be sure: without good cataloging, even the most marvelous digitization won’t make books more accessible; it’ll do the opposite.

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  6. 6. bucketofsquid 12:46 pm 01/7/2013

    My primary issue with electronic media in general is that back-lit screens have been shown to cause eye strain and depression. The original Kindle wasn’t back-lit but the newest version is. Until the color screen can be done without back-lighting, I’m not interested.

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