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A Luddite laments a bookless library for Florida Poly

Florida Polytechnic University’s Science and Technology Building is a bold statement for innovation, but should the institution’s appetite for the cutting edge be the death knell for cover-bound books at the library on its Lakeland campus?
Florida Polytechnic University’s Science and Technology Building is a bold statement for innovation, but should the institution’s appetite for the cutting edge be the death knell for cover-bound books at the library on its Lakeland campus?
Published Aug. 29, 2014

If you have ever spent time at the library, in the cool quiet with the dusty-clean smell of books all around you, these may be bleak words:

Our state's newest public university, the just-opened Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland, features an 11,000-square-foot library.

Without books.

A bookless library.

And is that the ghost of John D. MacDonald off in the stacks, quietly weeping? Oh, wait, there are no stacks.

The new U's inaugural class of 550 students does have access, however, to some 135,000 e-books, with computers, laptops, monitors and tablets. And given the school's mission to teach science, technology, engineering and math, higher-tech makes sense.

And yes, gleaning information from techy textbooks is very different from falling into the pages of The Great Gatsby.

So why does it still sound so sad?

"It is stunning to walk into a library and there are no books," says Kathryn Miller, Florida Poly's director of libraries — though less so for young students who have been tapping keyboards since their sippy cup days.

Lamented a visiting father recently: But I met my wife in the library! Miller says you still can.

She makes a good case for this particular fit: Students can access courses and the library wherever they go and still gather at the library to collaborate (There are quiet zones, too.) But you can eat in this library. Imagine.

No, no one has asked for an old-school book yet, though it's early. And no, she admits, "it doesn't smell like books."

While major libraries have long made e-books and audiobooks available alongside their core bound collections, Florida Poly's booklessness is getting worldwide attention.

And those old-school readers are now referred to as "physical books" to distinguish them from the slicker new versions. Can "dead tree receptacles" be far behind?

I admit I am a Luddite here. After years of stubborn resistance, I recently read my first e-book. Yes, it was easier than lugging a 771-page hardback copy of The Goldfinch on a plane while everyone else is trilling their fingers lightly across their screens.

But no, it is not the same. It is frozen pizza: More convenient. Not bad. A lot like the real thing, in fact. But not.

Kathleen McCook, distinguished university professor of librarianship who teaches the history of books and libraries at the University of South Florida in Tampa, agrees. Great libraries, she points out, have changed lives. (Ask any kid whose first library card was like Christmas morning, or anyone who ever wandered into a book store and got blissfully lost for an hour.)

"Maybe it reflects the digital life today, but I don't think in the long run it's going to give people the same quality of experience," she says. She worries about missing out on "that very quiet and intimate connection between people and the printed word."

"It's just not going to give people the serendipitous experience of walking though shelves of books — "a tremendous rite of passage."

Exactly.

It is interesting — comforting, even — to note that Florida Poly's bookless library's director is not herself bookless. She reads the old-fashioned kind to her girls. She still sits down at night and reads pages bound by covers. She finds it relaxing, she says.

Because sometimes, frozen pizza will not do.

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