Thursday, April 24, 2014

Libraries Without Books

Georgia Tech in its library renovation will move the vast majority of its books into a combined Emory/Tech Library Service Center off-campus. Very few people use the stacks anymore, particularly at this institute dominated by engineering and computer science.

As a young assistant professor at the University of Chicago in the 90's, I averaged about one trip a day to the joint Math/CS library to track down research papers or old books to find various mathematical definitions and theorems. These days I can access all these papers online and get access to mathematical definitions through Wikipedia and other sites.

I miss seeing the papers near the papers I'm looking for. I remember running across a paper grappling with the union of two complexity classes, which inspired this blog post. In order to prove a theorem about context-free languages, we relied on a characterization buried in a 1966 textbook on the topic. The Chicago library had three copies of that book, so I suppose someone once taught from it, a whole course on Context-Free Languages in the 60's.

I last time tracked down books in the library (at Northwestern) to research the history of P v NP for my book, which will itself likely soon follow the others into these "service centers". I can't remember the last time I went to the library to track down information for research purposes.

There's much to miss about looking up research materials in a library. But I also miss my electric typewriter, my almanac and my World Book encyclopedia collection. Can't stop progress.


  1. The biggest loss here, at least as far as I'm concerned, is serendipity -- looking for a book and finding several useful ones nearby. Plus, there's something to be said for the physical act of surrounding yourself with books on whatever you're researching.

    Still, the gains could well outweigh the potential downside, and I can imagine software tools that could recreate the benefits of a physical library, like a sort of less neutered Google Books that recommends pages based on some clustering algorithm.

  2. The Web also has serenddipity- you search for something and find something else. If this is more or less serendipdous than a library- hard to say.

  3. i maintain that the atmosphere (and the positive side-effects it brings along) of actually being physically in a well-furnished library cannot be emulated on any serious level. (i am mainly referring to the harvard library system which far surpasses the standards and luxury of the rest in the boston/cambridge area. not saying that bu has none, nor that mit has no good ones but few can compete against something like the widener library.)

    in a library u still have a choice of using ur laptop and/or accessing physical copy of books.

    *serenddipity ? don't the blog has spexxcheck automoatically ?

    1. I wonder if your grandchildren will have no idea what you are talking about.
      I ask this nonrhetorically. I also wonder if they will be WRONG and you will be RIGHT.

      I wonder if when the printing press came along some people still prefered the nice caligraphy of hand-written books and thought that nothing beats that experience. And I wonder if they had a point.

      I wonder, I wa-wa-wa-wa-wonder....

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