April 20, 2017

UC Berkeley’s renovated undergraduate library will put you to sleep (with its fancy nap pods)


Last fall, UC Berkeley, that California campus known for having the most robust collection of books (print and digital) in the whole of that big beautiful state, finally unveiled its newly renovated, five-story-high Moffitt Library — and it has basically zero physical books inside. As reported by Teresa Watanabe in the Los Angeles Times, the update ran up a bill of $15 million, and the resulting facility features, instead of books, the kinds of amenities more often associated with start-up and corporate culture than higher education: nap pods, movable furniture, and exercise bikes.

So where did all the books go? Were they lost in a terrible renovation fire?

Nah. This was all in the plans. As Watanabe explains, “The school decided in 2014 to move 70,000 books—nearly its entire print collection—into storage facilities.” The reasoning behind the decision is simple enough: students need more room, and books take up a lot of it; further, books in a university’s collection do not necessarily become inaccessible if they are not there; they are just accessed by students digitally instead of physically. The renovation freed up 12,000 square feet.

Okay. For anyone who’s ventured into a university library in the last ten years, all this probably comes as no surprise. Berkeley’s decision is part of a general trend in academic libraries that sees universities expanding their digital collections (which many students prefer and probably all are more comfortable using) and using the resulting extra space for resources like computers and group study rooms.

A lot of students, Watanabe reports, don’t seem to mind.

Ted Xiao, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, loves the changes at Moffitt. He and five classmates recently used a meeting room to work on a PowerPoint presentation. As they brainstormed, they ate snickerdoodles, washed down with milk tea.

Moffitt used to be so “old and musty,” Xiao said, that he visited once and never returned. Now he comes often — and doesn’t miss the books. Everything he needs is online.

“I’ve never actually needed to use a physical book,” Xiao said. “I’ve never checked one out. I can’t honestly say I even know how.”

Make of that whatever you will, but Xiao makes an irrefutable point: as libraries digitize their physical collections, it becomes easier for many to access this material through alternate means (of course, I’m describing students who are properly set up to access material in this way; the conversation, I suspect, would be a bit different if a public institution were hauling print books off somewhere less accessible without making their digital versions available). Even easier than, say, walking up to a librarian and asking them to just show you where an obscure tract on the dangers of this or that is located? I’m not totally convinced.

But what this methodology of renovation does do is change is how information is discovered. Speaking to Watanabe, Richard Montgomery, a UC Santa Cruz professor of mathematics, notes that, “online access or interlibrary loans are fine for those who know exactly what they need. What’s gone is the ability to browse for ideas.”

This is not a small point to make. I for one distinctly recall the evenings I spent as an undergraduate at the University of Nevada LasVegas’s Lied Library feeling the need to discover… something. Being that I knew not what I was looking for, I couldn’t just type it into a search bar. It didn’t have a title or a call number. Which is to say that sometimes students, worried and lonely, need more than a nap. They need to be able to find what they came in for, sure, but also to walk around and grab some random book. Historically, libraries have provided both.



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.