Books | May 27, 2019 10:45 am

Are University Libraries Being Underutilized?

Unsettling statistics on student and faculty usage

Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library at NYU
Beyond My Ken/Creative Commons

The narrative surrounding libraries in 2019 is a largely positive one. Usage of public libraries is up among millennials, and the benefits of libraries as public spaces have been recognized by a host of writers and thinkers. All of which is great news for those of us who appreciate the existence and potential of a good library.

But in a new article for The Atlantic, Dan Cohen — the Vice Provost for Information Collaboration at Northeastern University — points out an important exception to this positive trend: university libraries. “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,” Cohen writes.

This isn’t simply a case of students eschewing books for online sources, either: Cohen cites data indicating that this downward trend applies to graduate students and faculty members as well as undergraduate. As Cohen notes, this is an especially complicated statistic when compared with the relative health of public libraries and bookstores.

The decline in the use of print books at universities relates to the kinds of books we read for scholarly pursuits rather than pure pleasure, the rise of ebooks and digital articles, and the changing environment of research. And it runs contrary to the experience of public libraries and bookstores, where print continues to thrive.

Cohen points out that these changes are due in part to an increase in research being made available online, as well as the increased popularity in communal spaces in university libraries. The evolution of any kind of facility is often cause for an exploration of what made that space important to begin with; determining what’s important to university libraries in 2019, and how research libraries differ from public libraries, is a discussion worth having.

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