Saturday, December 10, 2005

A book in the hand is worth two on the screen

The University of Texas at Austin has removed almost all of the books from its undergraduate library to make way for a 24-7 electronic information center. Only dictionaries and encyclopedias remain, although it would seem to me that those might be the first to go.

The University of Texas is not alone. Other institutions have also made the move towards digital libraries, including the University of Southern California, Emory, the University of Georgia, and so on. It is not, I think, an altogether felicitous development.

Certainly, universities should make every effort to provide their students with high-speed, wireless access to the web. And every incoming freshman should be required to take a course in using the web as a learning resource, including how to evaluate the reliability of web-based information. But for God's sake, leave the books alone. Grazing the shelves of a good library can be the surest and best introduction to the world of ideas. There is nothing like holding in your hands a broadsheet like the New York Times, a narrow sheet like the New York Review of Books, or a thick dusty volume of, say, the Brothers Karamazov. What the digital library architects overlook is that learning has a tactile dimension. It is not for nothing that we talk about weighty ideas. Ponder and ponderous have the same root, as do grave ("requiring serious thought") and gravity.

When my two student colleagues, Bailey and Greg, came over for dinner the other evening, I gave them each as a Christmas gift the splendid -- and hefty -- Penguin Classics Deluxe edition of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, and ordered an extra copy for myself. After days at my laptop this winter I will curl up -- for the first time since I was Greg's and Bailey's age -- with that particular satisfyingly palpable analog bundle of bound printed paper freighted with ideas.