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Sharon Cramer: Who could’ve imagined a library without books?

By seventh grade, I was a library junkie. Miss Jacobs, the children’s room librarian, observed my frequent visits and offered me my first job, shelving books in the children’s room. Since then, I have felt at home in libraries wherever I’ve gone – ancient, modern, noisy, silent. I’ve been comforted by the presence of books, resource materials and the norms of library life throughout my life.

As the library world changed, I have watched and adjusted. Not so long ago, research in libraries involved taking notes on index cards, after finding relevant books or journal articles by searching them out on stacks within the library’s collection. Now, such an approach is as outdated as is film for taking photographs or making movies.

Interlibrary loan, the lifeline for scholars, used to be entirely on paper. Looking at the cover sheet stapled to the pages of each fulfilled interlibrary loan request used to show the locations of assisting libraries – some across the country, others abroad. Now, all interlibrary loans are electronic and anonymous. Like the gold spun overnight by Rumpelstiltskin, responses to virtual requests appear the next day in email inboxes, provided by anonymous hands.

The ultimate contrast between the past and the present/future of libraries was demonstrated at the recent reopening of the Oscar A. Silverman Library at the University at Buffalo. The new Silverman illustrates the dramatic evolution of libraries – 500,000 volumes were moved out of the third floor, creating a 45,000-square-foot bookless space to inspire scholarly pursuits. Students have access 24/7 to work areas that are removed from nontechnological distractions.

UB has seven other “traditional” libraries, containing books, journals and other items, but within this new setting, students are book-free. They can work and study within a library that inspires, taking in the beauty of design all around them. In the light-filled spaces, students can easily mentally transport to alternate places, but they will have to initiate their own actual treks to grasp printed words. The library of today is welcoming new intersections between the mind and ideas of the past, via the fingers.

Reverence for Silverman is an affectionate presence in the library. Visitors can view mementos from his academic career and his portrait. We can imagine conversing with him, experiencing his warmth and intelligence. Beginning in 1926, and continuing for nearly 50 years, his service included roles as faculty member, department chairman and library director.

As a result of his initiatives, the university library collection includes works by Robert Graves and James Joyce. His enthusiasm for scholarship led to stunning acquisitions for the library – growing the collection from 350,000 to over 1 million volumes during the eight years he served as director.

Inevitably, one wonders what he would think of the space bearing his name being book-free. How would he adjust to an environment that facilitates learning not through paper but through electronic questing? As a visionary, his imagination might delight at the thought of students conducting time travel via technology to find their newest resources. This library opens doors that Silverman never could have imagined. Hopefully, his love of libraries will be contagious and instill in students the belief that libraries – of all kinds – can forever be their homes.

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