So to spell this out as clearly as possible: I love reading, and have since I was 3 years old. I've devoted my adult life to studying and teaching literature. At the most basic level, I believe that reading is good for people -- the Harry Potter hoopla is great, as far as I'm concerned, even though I've never gotten as entranced by those books as many other people. Reading -- reading anything -- is good for the imagination, good for the mind's agility, good for expanding our sense of what it means to be human.
And I also care about books as physical objects. Much of my research deals with material from the historical past, and is concerned with details of publication history, physical formatting, and the technological and economic history of the book as a physical object. I teach my students about the development of the book, not simply since Gutenberg, but going back to the earliest systems of writing. Once you expand your concept of "book" to include not just printed texts, but medieval manuscripts on vellum, or Egyptian scrolls, or the clay tablets of Mesopotamia, you see how rich and various the book has been and will undoubtedly continue to be. Over the past 15 years or so there have been a variety of commentators exclaiming about "the death of the book" and complaining that you can't read a computer in the bathtub, as if that was the sine qua non of reading. Yes, I understand that books have become fetish objects for many people -- especially those of us in the academic tribe. But we are in a time of technologic shift,as new forms of electronic textuality become more widely available and affordable. Reading is still reading, even if you do it in a different way. For some of us, reading on a screen is still tiring. But for many younger people, that's what they're used to. When papyrus scrolls were beginning to be replaced by bound wax tablets in ancient Greece, older people probably complained a lot too . . .
These thoughts were prompted by this column in the Chronicle, which is typical of the fusty stance that many academics in the humanities seem to feel that they have to put on once they get a Ph.D. The columnist "Thomas Benton" has in earlier columns confessed to being an obsessive book collector, so maybe he's an easy target. But this column conflates too many different things and winds up not really saying much at all.
Yes, using rare materials in Special Collections departments can teach us a lot about the history of a text. Yes, browsing in the stacks of a library can create wonderful moments of discovery and serendipity. But that's for those of us who have devoted our lives to research. The typical undergraduate doesn't ever have that experience, in part because most fields of study at the BA level do not require significant advanced autonomous research.
University of Texas at Austin's much-cited decision to remodel its undergraduate library and relocate its books is hardly the death knell of libraries. At the 7 or 8 university libraries that I've been associated with over the past 20 years, in every case, the "undergraduate library" (sometimes a separate building, sometimes only a wing) was never a place for conducting research. Undergraduate libraries were designed to keep the drunken 20 year olds away from the precious materials held in the main library. So you might have some encyclopedias, dictionaries, other reference works, and a few tattered copies of classic novels. But these spaces have primarily been for students to sprawl and study.
At Ivyesque Public U, for instance, the undergrad library had five levels. Where you studied depended on who you hung with -- Greeks on one floor, engineers on the silence-only floor, random mixtures on others. Except for the bottom floor, which was the smoking floor. There, the English majors reigned supreme, joined by the neohippies and the clubkids. Good times.
At Prestigious Private U, the undergraduate wing had no barcodes on the books -- the library staff put old half-destroyed books in there that they wanted people to steal. But there were rarely any takers.
But if you had research to do, at these and other campuses, everyone knew you went to the main library. Chances are, something similar goes on at UT. So removing the old outdated dictionaries and putting in coffee and computers sounds like a great idea to me, in terms of retaining the library's place as a central location for studying & socializing. That's what the undergraduate experience at a traditional U is like.