Bookless Stanford Engineering Library is a Bad Idea

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Stanford University’s Engineering Library is in the process of getting rid of 85% of its books, as it moves into a new building, and I have some huge philosophical and practical problems with this.

The first problem is that digital books are still in their infancy, and while they offer a far superior search capability, the tactile experience and performance of quickly scanning a paper book, magazine, or technical document has not even come close to being approached by any electronic device I have seen. For this reason alone, this shift may have a detrimental impact on how well students can parse and absorb technical material. Screen size alone is a huge issue, and compare how much information you can view at one time on even a 17″ laptop screen with how much visual information you can spread out on a library table. The multitasking and comparisons allowed by physical media is vastly superior to what even the most advanced e-book can provide.

The second problem is that while some argue that engineering is such a quickly changing discipline that printed books can’t be expected to keep up, there is much knowledge that doesn’t change rapidly, and the ability for information to change or disappear rapidly from one edition to the next, without the ability to quickly compare it to a known historical reference, is likely to degrade the ability to catch errors of omission, rewording, or worse. And in many cases, it is still far easier to quickly share printed material than it is electronic material—especially that which is protected by DRM.

The third problem goes much deeper. It has to deal with the librarians reacting to what the students are and aren’t reading, then making decisions about what to keep based on that, as opposed to keeping what the librarians ought to know they need to have accessible. I find it hard to believe that in tossing out 80% of the library’s books, that the librarians have not discarded important reference material that hasn’t been accessed simply because its relevance wasn’t highlighted by professors or the librarians.

I witnessed a concise example of the third problem—one that unfortunately does not seem to be confined to Stanford’s library. My last visit to the Terman Library was perhaps a year and a half ago, when I was looking for symbol design and usage guidance for use in automobiles and on other equipment. Surely the engineers Stanford is turning out need to be able to have access to these critical documents, especially since their cost is prohibitive to any student without his own (substantial) trust fund. I found a few collections of official ISO/IEC symbols, mostly in the automotive standards documents, but none of these detailed how to use or design the symbols.

Worse, the librarian wasn’t even aware of these standards bodies or their importance. She was, however, quite helpful in showing me how to find which other libraries might have these documents on their shelves. That answer was shocking and enlightening—fewer than a half-dozen libraries throughout the entire U.S. had any one particular standard I was after, and none had them all. I am convinced that this is one of the reasons that products remain hard to use; that as visible as interaction design is as a discipline now, its fundamental, key concepts are not taught to the vast majority of engineering students, let alone the graphic designers who are routinely asked to create them without any proper training.

Without taking a list of all the books Stanford is about to trash, I can’t be sure if they are removing important tomes, but I’ll bet it’s a significant amount, and the loss will be felt years down the road.

Author: Peter Sheerin

Peter Sheerin is best known for the decade he spent as the Technical Editor of CADENCE magazine, where he was the acknowledged expert in Computer-Aided Design hardware and software. He has a long-standing passion for improving usability of software, hardware, and everyday objects that is always interwoven in his articles. Peter is available for freelance technical writing and product reviews, and is exploring career opportunities in interaction design. His pet personal project is exploring the best ways to harmonize visual, tactile, and audible symbols for improving the effectiveness of alerting systems.

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