Books aren’t immune to functional obsolescence

Books+aren%E2%80%99t+immune+to+functional+obsolescence

Tim Eggert

Earlier this week, the Lydia M. Olson Library circulated a campus-wide survey requesting feedback on the installation of a new book drop. A spit in the $5.8 million sea, the receptacle will result from the Learning Resource Center (LRC) renovation scheduled to begin in 2019, and according to the survey, will enable the return of materials without users entering the building.

Along with more dramatic alterations to the library and the LRC as a whole, the book bin mirrors the theme of the renovation: updated materials and spaces to satisfy evolving student and staff needs.

In an increasingly digital age of learning, environments such as the LRC ought to reflect the technological advances that we as students engage with and have come to expect. Purportedly, the revamp plan won’t contradict this: the Digital Media Tutoring Center will expand, device charging will become user friendly and other academic support centers will be more accessible.

Yet, among the modernized study areas supporting electronic exploration will loom the ancestral sources of information: books.

If you’ve been in Olson Library, then you may have noticed them. Books have been, and still are on the shelves, and there’s no reason to doubt that they’ll continue to be there. If you pull one off the shelf and turn to the list of return dates, however, chances are you’ll find that the book hasn’t been checked out in years, decades, or in some cases, at all.

The paradox seems obvious —a new book drop for books that don’t leave the shelves. Even as campus continues to evolve and expand in tandem with technology, books are replaced by electronic substitutes, but also remain as physical requirements.

The new book drop, albeit the embodiment of convenience, progress and perhaps contradiction, symbolizes the influence that universities have to both prevent and induce the obsolescence of books.

Although Olson Library is the campus nucleus for books, most students are familiar with them via the university bookstore. Whether by choice or by default, you probably ordered some textbooks from Barnes & Noble College, and racked up a bill of at least three figures in the process.

Insane textbook prices have both nothing and everything to do with NMU. As a national bookseller, Barnes & Noble has control over the presence and prices of books, but ultimately professors make the call on which textbooks we need, and whether they should be print or e-books.

Even though the bookstore offers e-books at a price typically more than 30 percent cheaper than their printed counterparts, professors most often require the print version. Thereby, the bookstore maintains the more profitable options.

Herein lies the feedback loop of book obsolescence on college campuses. Books are simultaneously existing and going extinct at higher and lower prices.

The bookstore also faces the affordability that online booksellers provide to students. As frugal students, we may also be responsible for the obsolescence. Because we prefer the lower prices from Amazon and the like, campus bookstores are forced to not only adjust their prices—the NMU bookstore price matches—but to redefine their identity.
Trade books once had as strong a presence at college bookstores as textbooks, but after the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) Foundation called on bookstores in 2010 to omit the word “book” and define themselves more generally as campus “stores” trade books have been replaced by university licensed apparel, food and gifts and accessories.

Moreover, our economical sense of book-buying has negatively impacted local, off-campus sources for books. After 27 years, Book World announced its closure due to the company’s inability to compete with e-commerce, leaving Snowbound Books as Marquette’s primary local bookstore. The lesson of the new book drop isn’t to bottleneck progress,
nor to preserve books in an act of Fahrenheit 451-esque rebellion, but to be cognizant that books still hold a relevant function in modern academia. Progress may be inevitable, but obsolescence doesn’t have to be.