By the book

Verena, a German student serving delicious apple soup at Aberdeen University's volunteer fair trade cafe, doesn't do e-books. "Screens give me a headache. I love to read books and I write on paper." Whether people like Verena are technophobes who will be left behind by the gradual evolution of the library into the "e-brary" is not yet clear.


“All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books,” wrote Thomas Carlyle. Despite the advent of online information-sharing, that remains true in the 21st century, says Professor Chris Gane, vice-principal of Aberdeen University.

“The short history of electronic technology is littered with obsolescence. I used to store everything on five and a half inch floppy discs. You would be hard pressed to find something to read them now. And where could you get a computer to read information stored in DOS files?” he asks. “But I can take you to the library and show you a page of an illustrated book you can read very much as someone would have read it 500 years ago.”

Aberdeen, one of the oldest universities in the world, was founded in 1495 by King James IV to improve the condition of the people of the north-east of Scotland, an area about the size of Belgium, whom he considered “rude, ignorant of letters and almost barbarous”. The university educated the sons of fishermen, farmers and ministers. Its impoverished students arrived, according to tradition, bearing a sack of oatmeal, their rations for a term.

Graduates included William Smith, who educated Thomas Jefferson and several others credited with the “common sense” movement that lay behind the Declaration of Independence.

Many valuable items washed up in this quiet corner of the world and are now among the 200,000 rare books in its possession. Treasures of the library include Renaissance cartography, an illustrated Bestiary, and a priceless 15th-century Spanish Hebrew bible, dating from around the time that Christians expelled Muslims and Jews from southern Spain.

This collection is one impetus for the building of a major new library costing £55m. The project, called “a library for our sixth century” and substantially funded by donations from former students, will contain a planned 40km of shelf space and will be the most significant library built by a British higher education institution in recent times. The investment, overseen by the principal, Duncan Rice, whose fundraising experience was gained at New York University and Yale, may be in part a response to fears that Scottish universities risk losing out on investment because they cannot charge top-up fees.

The ground floor, which will be open to the public, will feature rare books displayed in a futuristic glass cell. The floors above will be for use by students and by locals, who can join for a small fee.

As well as quiet reading areas, the building will feature performance space, meeting rooms, cafes and social space. Rather than relying on fixed computers, it will be flooded with a wireless network, enabling students to use their laptops there.

A scale model of the building, designed by the Danish architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen, looks rather like a wedding cake for Tracey Emin, a towering cube with a 50% glass facade. Scheduled for completion by 2010, it will certainly provide a better environment than the current library, a concrete 70s building built for 5,500 students. The university has more than twice that number now. It is stuffy, and dominated by the buzz of computer terminals and the thumping of photocopier lids.

Despite its overcrowding and dinginess, Gane says students will queue for 45 minutes for a computer terminal there, although terminals are free in computer labs. “They prefer to be in the library. They want to use books as well as technology. The library remains at the centre of university life.” In contrast, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has just invested £25,000 in 30,000 texts for its growing “e-brary”.

Nick Currie, a criminology lecturer at UCLan, says: ” Students complain that there are not enough books in the library. We have 300 first-year criminology students and there will be perhaps 10 copies of each core text. On the one hand, what I find annoying is that they just come to class and say the book wasn’t there, instead of reading something else. They also resent spending money on books. They would rather spend it on beer.

“But on the other hand, I think with topup fees especially, there are certain things they are entitled to expect, and plenty of books is one of them.”

But UCLan’s Preston library is under pressure, with tens of thousands of students more than its facilities were designed for. Its head of information services, Jeremy Andrew, believes having core texts available online will help. “We open 24 hours a day and we regularly have between 250 and 400 students here throughout the night, so we try to make the best use of the facilities we have. Of course we would like to have more.”

Student education officer Peta Carter says at certain times of the year it is impossible to get a computer terminal in the library before 11pm. She is proud of the student safety bus the union introduced, now paid for by the university. “They do try to get the best use out of the facilities. The turnover of books is quite quick, as they try to keep the library stocked with new books. So there’s plenty of new stuff, but there isn’t much older stuff there.

Lucky finds

“E-books and CDs are useful for checking a reference, or calling up a particular page, but they are in addition to the books, not instead. You make more serendipitous discoveries in a library: you go for one book and it’s not there, but you find something else that’s interesting,” she says.

Currie says he and colleagues at UCLan were invited to a presentation by some web publishers. “They were saying things like: ‘For those of you who like to think in pictures, you might prefer the web stuff.’ I was thinking: ‘Those who like to think in pictures are going to struggle doing a university degree, because I am not prepared to mark pictures.’ I think students need to read more books, not fewer.

“Reading is an integral part of the learning process. I don’t see how you can learn anything in depth if you don’t read books. If you think Marx shouldn’t have wasted his time writing 20 volumes of Capital when he only had two or three ideas that could be summarised in a paragraph, then the internet is fine. But if you want to understand ideas, you have to read books because that is where the ideas are.”

The Guardian
10th October 2006