Perennial Loves: The Book and the Academic Library 

by Amanda C. R. Clark

Available for purchase is a perfume named “Paperback,” another called “Replica: Whispers in the Library” (which claims to smell like paper and waxed wood), and an oil titled “Library,” which claims to allow you to “Indulge in a cozy day cuddled up in a nook of bookshelves. The smell of old leather and the feeling of antique pages.” [1] The nostalgia for the printed book and for the wood-paneled library, it seems, is perennial, so much so that there are those who purchase marketed scents to satisfy this longing. It is an aroma that some claim is a “weirdly intoxicating scent that haunts libraries and second-hand bookstores;” comprised of chemicals that are sweetly floral and vanilla-like with almond overtones. [2]

And yet despite these cravings to wander stacks and fondle texts, we often find ourselves living the Age of Alexa—shopping, buying, ordering, being eavesdropped on, moving from screen to screen, and text to text. [3] We talk to our devices and expect them to talk back. When we pick up a paperback we hold the voices of the past. The book does not respond with Siri’s “I didn’t quite get that,” but instead it waits to speak in the hushed whispers of our own minds. In short, unlike the stealth algorithm of the search engine, the book allows us to be the primary actors in our own lives.  

As the library director at a small academic library in the pacific northwest, I see our unique niche within the library world as retaining our stacks and books. I do not entirely reject the idea of a “consulting library” which expands beyond print to the digital; I do, however, defend adamantly the importance—nay, the essential nature—of the physical, printed book. We live in a culture of hybrid values: we crave the scent and feel of the book while we likewise (seemingly) value the “relationship between time and information” that is easily accessed on a screen. [4] My iPhone reports on my screen time behaviors each week in a reminder that gently scolds me, noting that I have devoted more time to social networking than “productivity,” and thus passing the accurate judgement that my social media hours are not, in fact, productive, nor even beneficial. 

What I propose here is that while we maintain a balance between the physical and the digital, it is wise to favor the real over the fleeting. When Amazon’s Kindle suddenly dropped several George Orwell books in 2009, we were reminded just how fleeting are the digital textual products that we rely on daily. [5] What an irony that books about Big Brother would fall prey to that very concept. I am reminded of the old library adage that “if it isn’t printed, it doesn’t exist.” It remains a salient point, one that librarians would be wise to heed.  

I write this after a year of dwindling librarian positions in both the states of Washington and Oregon. In the K-12 system in Oregon, teacher-librarians have declined from 547 students per librarian in 1980 to 3,500 students per librarian in 2015. [6] In April of 2019, “every librarian in Spokane Public Schools received notice that their jobs [would] be eliminated next year.” [7] We live in the era of contradiction—we both harken for the book and library, while wantonly seeking its destruction.  Not on my watch, I say, and I am not alone in this sentiment. Recent articles such as “College Students Just Want Normal Libraries,” speak to how administrators are missing the mark when it comes to re-designing libraries. The formula for what works is not only known, tried, and tested, it is supported by students who cry for tradition. [8] “So-called digital natives still crave opportunities to use libraries as libraries, and many actively seek out physical texts—92 percent of the college students surveyed in the 2015 study, for example, said they preferred paper books to electronic versions.” [9] And that is even before we consider how learning progresses and how the brain responds differently to digital and physical materials. These reports from student populations should give us pause before we transform our libraries into vacuous, airport-like, no-where places. 

May our lust for that which is new and trendy never overwhelm, like the tidal wave of a tsunami, the permanent things that are to be found within the walls of a conventional library. [10] May the physical book, as Timothy Egan writes, make the “comeback of the century.” [11]

[1] See and
[2]  “Aroma Chemistry: What Causes the Smell of New & Old Books?” (June 1, 2014)
[3] See “Is Alexa Dangerous: Alexa, Should We Trust You?” The Atlantic (November 2018)
[4] L. Floridi, “Internet: Which Future for the Organized Knowledge: Frankenstein or Pygmalion?” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 43: 264. I must thank aspiring librarian Robin Phillips in his excellent recommendation of several texts that I will quote here.
[5] Brad Stone, “Amazon Erases Orwell Books from Kindle,” The New York Times (July 18, 2009).
[6] “A Windfall is Coming; Spend Some on Librarians,” The Register-Guard (September 23, 2019).
[7] Jim Allen, “School Libraries Targeted as Spokane Public Schools Issues Layoff Notices,” The Spokesman Review (April 12, 2019).
[8] Crimson Editorial Board, “Changing Libraries—But Not Too Much,” The Harvard Crimson (October 17, 2019). Note that the article starts with the statement that the content “represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.”
[9] Alie Wong, “College Students Just Want Normal Libraries,” The Atlantic (October 4, 2019).
[10] I must thank, in an awkward sort of way, the Whitworth community members who prompted this essay by bringing the following inflammatory article to my attention: Dan Cohen, “The Books of College Libraries are Turning into Wallpaper,” The Atlantic (May 26, 2019).
[11] Timothy Egan, “The Comeback of the Century: Why the Book Endures, Even in an Era of Disposable Digital Culture,” The New York Times (May 24, 2019).
Photo by author.

Amanda C. R. Clark is Library Director at Whitworth University. She has published in areas of architecture, biography, book arts, and the significance of books. Clark holds a PhD in library and information sciences from the University of Alabama.

3 thoughts on “Perennial Loves: The Book and the Academic Library 

  1. Loved the article! I agree that there is nothing better than the feel of a real book in your hands when you are reading. Also love the smell of the paper when you are reading an older book. A real paper book just adds special element to the whole reading experience

  2. Recent neurological research suggests that the brain is more deeply engaged when reading paper as compared to screen text (see “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age” by Ferris Jabr). I think that more than just the tactile experience of holding a book is a factor. So, too, is the whole environment of the reader. I believe that a computer screen removes you from the physical environment – such as a library – where you are reading. I would argue that this makes comprehension and retention more difficult, because these are more than just mental functions. The screen is like a barrier. A book, though, is part of a larger ecosystem.

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