DENVER — When does a library cease to be a library?
What started as a debate over whether brick-and-mortar libraries would survive much further into the 21st century turned into an existential discussion on the definition of libraries, as a gathering of technologists here at the 2009 Educause Conference pondered the evolution of one of higher education’s oldest institutions.
“Let’s face it: the library, as a place, is dead,” said Suzanne E. Thorin, dean of libraries at Syracuse University. “Kaput. Finito. And we need to move on to a new concept of what the academic library is.”
Thorin prefaced her comments by saying that for the purposes of the debate she would be taking an extreme position on the fate of libraries. But her argument tapped into theories about the obsolescence of libraries  — traditionally defined — that have grown along with the emergence of Web-based reference tools, e-books, digitized and born-digital content, and other technologies that some see as changing essential library functions.
“The scientists have mostly gone online with their library needs,” Thorin said. “Cutting-edge scholars in the humanities are building new disciplines and online environments are are, in effect, libraries themselves; they are diffuse, collaborative, non-hierarchical, always changing.”
Certain major research universities, she noted, have even begun moving their books to off-campus storage facilities due to space issues and a diminishing need for on-site hard copies. Libraries everywhere are eliminating pricey subscriptions to printed academic journals, often opting for less expensive digital versions.
Despite the objections of “a minority of very loud faculty members,” Thorin said, the days of wandering through the stacks are over. “People,” she told the audience, of whom many were librarians, “the world has changed, and so have your students, and so have your faculty!”
Richard E. Luce, director of university libraries at Emory University, countered that just because libraries are transitioning from print to online does not mean they will cease to be libraries.
“The issue is really about library as place, whether you need the bricks and mortar,” Luce said. “So let’s look at that.” Why did thousands of college technologists come to Educause? “To interact with one another — to talk, to collaborate, to think, to communicate, to be with one another,” he said. “Isn’t that what we do in our best libraries?”
The library still is, and will continue to be, the centerpiece of a campus, Luce said. The history of libraries, he said, has been marked by evolution: They were founded as places where materials were collected and stored. Then they shifted their focus toward connecting clients with resources. Then, with the addition of creature comforts such as coffee shops, they became "experience" centered, effectively rendering student unions obsolete.
“Now, in the fourth generation, we’re really seeing the library as a place to connect, collaborate, learn, and really synthesize all four of those roles together,” said Luce. “How do you do that without bricks and mortar?”
One audience member commented that libraries are defined more by what they do than what they look like. While new technologies might be replacing print collections, she said, they are not replacing librarians — whose roles as research guides have become more even important as available resources have multiplied.
“I think it’s important to look at the type of reference question that’s asked,” she said. “If you look at the READ Scale,  which is a tool used to assess the complexity of a question that is asked, the number of directional and simple … questions has dropped, because we’ve provided the tools to make answering those questions easy.
“If you look at the number of more difficult, research-oriented questions,” she continued, “we find it has grown as the complexity of the tools to provide answers to those questions has become more intense.”
Although they nominally represented opposing sides of the debate, Thorin and Luce agreed that while the functions and appearance of libraries will likely change, nobody’s about to tear them down just because they have fewer books and more social spaces.
“Maybe the whole idea of ‘Is the library, as a place, dead or not,’ maybe this is a red herring,” Thorin said. “…Maybe the question is, ‘Who knows what the library means anymore?’ ”