When Yale recently decided to relocate three-quarters of the books in its undergraduate library to create more study space, the students loudly protested. In a passionate op-ed in the Yale Daily News, one student accused the university librarian—who oversees 15 million books in Yale’s extensive library system—of failing to “understand the crucial relationship of books to education.” A sit-in, or rather a “browse-in,” was held in Bass Library to show the administration how college students still value the presence of books. Eventually the number of volumes that would remain was expanded, at the cost of reducing the number of proposed additional seats in a busy central location.
Little-noticed in this minor skirmish over the future of the library was a much bigger story about the changing relationship between college students and books. Buried in a slide deck about circulation statistics from Yale’s library was an unsettling fact: There has been a 64 percent decline in the number of books checked out by undergraduates from Bass Library over the past decade.
Yale’s experience is not at all unique—indeed, it is commonplace. University libraries across the country, and around the world, are seeing steady, and in many cases precipitous, declines in the use of the books on their shelves. The University of Virginia, one of our great public universities and an institution that openly shares detailed library circulation stats from the prior 20 years, is a good case study. College students at UVA checked out 238,000 books during the school year a decade ago; last year, that number had shrunk to just 60,000.