As libraries go digital, lessons from an unlikely source: Amazon Prime

No, you don't have to do away with physical books completely to become a state-of-the-art library

Colleges across the country are shifting the focuses of their libraries to offer a greater range of digital resources and repurposing space that formerly held shelves of books to make room for:

  • Collaborative learning spaces;
  • Technology spaces;
  • Dining areas;
  • Research support; and
  • Other academic services.

But as leaders embark to repurpose library space and overhaul collections, two challenging logistical questions arise:

  1. What do you do with the thousands of physical books?; and
  2. How will students access library resources while a potentially lengthy renovation takes place?

Arizona State University (ASU) is answering these questions in a unique way. Last year, ASU received a $50,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to undergo a major library overhaul. According to a statement on ASU's Library website, the renovation will focus on:

  • Enhancing space for students to collaborate;
  • Elevating the visibility of special library collections;
  • Improving accessibility with a user-friendly design;
  • Engaging the community through curated exhibit partnerships and more. 

See the key characteristics of the 21st century library

To address the logistical issue of physical books—that is, getting them out of the way without restricting students' access to them—ASU leaders say they plan to take an Amazon-like approach. The library currently has 4.5 million physical items in its collections, and it plans to move a large number of these to a storage facility nearby. From here, students will be able to request expedited delivery of the books they need. 

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The physical book storage isn't just a temporary fix underway while the library is under construction, either—ASU President Michael Crow has expressed hope that ASU will ultimately make all of its books available for same-day delivery, and some day maybe even delivery by drone. 

As for the other logistical question—how to ensure student access during renovation—ASU has decided to keep the bottom two underground levels of its library open throughout the renovation and to create additional study spaces on other parts of the campus.

Other schools that have recently revamped their libraries or plan to do so soon include:

  • Grand Valley State University, whose library has 29 different types of moveable seating;
  • Austin Community College, where students can take advantage of "BatLab" markerspaces;
  • Notre Dame University, where the 14-story Hesburgh Library includes a 3D printing service and full sound studio;
  • Salisbury University, where four-story Guerrieri Academic Commons includes a two-story cyber café with a 24-hour study and dining space; and
  • Ohio State University, where students can access data management plans, funding opportunities, and copyright services in the Library Research Commons.

(ASU Library Website, 2/23; Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed, 3/24).

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