College students aren’t checking out books

Monday, June 17th, 2019

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:

The University of Virginia, one of our great public universities and an institution that openly shares detailed library circulation stats from the prior 20 years, is a good case study. College students at UVA checked out 238,000 books during the school year a decade ago; last year, that number had shrunk to just 60,000.

Before you tsk-tsk today’s kids for their lack of bookishness, note that the trend lines are sliding southward for graduate students and faculty members, too: down 61 percent and 46 percent, respectively, at UVA. Overall, across its entire network of libraries, UVA circulated 525,000 books during the 2007–08 school year, but last year there were only 188,000 loans — nearly 1,000 fewer books checked out a day. The Association of Research Libraries’ aggregated statistics show a steady decrease of the same proportion across its membership, even as student enrollment at these universities has grown substantially.

Maybe students aren’t checking the books out but are still consulting them regularly within the library? This also does not appear to be true. Many libraries also track such in-house uses, by tallying the books that need to be reshelved, and the trends are the same. At my library at Northeastern University, undergraduate circulations declined 50 percent from 2013 to 2017 — before we decided to do our own book relocation — and our logged number of books removed from shelves but not checked out also dropped by half.


A positive way of looking at these changes is that we are witnessing a Great Sorting within the library, a matching of different kinds of scholarly uses with the right media, formats, and locations. Books that are in high demand; or that benefit from physical manifestations, such as art books and musical scores; or that are rare or require careful, full engagement, might be better off in centralized places on campus. But multiple copies of common books, those that can be consulted quickly online or are needed only once a decade, or that are now largely replaced by digital forms, can be stored off site and made available quickly on demand, which reduces costs for libraries and also allows them to more easily share books among institutions in a network. Importantly, this also closes the gap between elite institutions such as Yale and the much larger number of colleges with more modest collections.


  1. Graham says:

    I don’t know what’s available to those with university subscriptions, but out here in the public world nowhere near a significant enough fraction of books in history, political science, anything in related areas, whether recently released or older, seems to be available in common digital formats.

    Journal articles seem to be better if you have such access or are willing to pay through the nose as a private citizen.

    I therefore worry that this drive to use only digital source might be impoverishing these students’ studies. But, again, they may have campus access to resources I don’t.

    I truly await the day when all books ever published, or surviving rather, are available digitally, easily. Not holding my breath.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    I went through a phase of trolling used bookstores for political science and history. Found some good stuff. Not willing to cart all that about when I moved, I took notes and scanned in the best parts. I’d upload, but… copyright.

    Life is short and time is precious. This is a hard truth for a bibliophile to accept. You can’t read everything. Not even all the good stuff. You have to prioritize.

  3. Graham says:


    I left Toronto in 1997 and have had many hundreds of books in a document storage place there for 22 years. Refuse to let go at least until I can ship them up and go through them to look for survivals. I remember a few specific books I want.

    I’ve also got right now books in boxes packed in a 2003 move and books packed in 2012. All, Allah willing, are about to move again.

    It’s a disease. But sometimes I think of it as my little war against the circumstances of my life. Surrender is not an option, at least not yet.

    But you’re right. My time for that is coming soon enough.

    On the larger point, I would be an early adopter for a machine one could just put a book in and scan all its contents without flipping pages. Until that is invented, I say technology has failed of its promises.

  4. Kirk says:

    The more frightening thing is what’s happened to all the works that the libraries have “de-accessioned”. It would be one thing if they’d have scanned and digitized them before sending all that stuff off to be pulped, but they mostly… Didn’t.

    Library science was one of the first targets for the Gramscians, and it shows. The whole thing is sickening–The cultural memory hole these assholes have created is stunning in it’s depth and depravity.

    I went looking for a bunch of the referenced works in John English’s On Infantry, and what did I find…? Even queries to Canada, most of the books he used as sources for pre-WWI tactical thinking are now unavailable, even through Google.

    Personally, I think the issue of knowledge preservation is going to take off as a problem for us all. Consider who’s in charge of it all–Once the crowd running Twitter and Pinterest get done de-personing all the wrong-think people, where do they go next…? Yeah; the digital archives. And, since all the hard copies are so much pulp?

    Mark my words: The years around us, starting with the earliest digital efforts, are going to come to be seen in the same light as the years where the library at Alexandria was burnt, because there’s going to be that much destruction. Our remote descendants are only going to know much of our culture due to scattered references in the vast digital wasteland we leave them, which will have been curated by the “politically correct” assholes we put into power by using Google and all the other “services”.

  5. Graham says:

    Such thoughts make it easier for me to contemplate my own eventual mortality, easier to stomach my civilization’s ongoing mortality, and easier yet to relish “their” ‘civilization”s deserved mortality.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    Ray Bradbury predicted this. His solution: memorize the books and head for the hills.

    It won’t scale. But nice try.

    Only copyright laws stop us from taking matters into our own hands. No one can control a decentralized digital archive. No one can censor sneakernet.

  7. Roland says:

    Using books from the library and having a few dozen references means automatic high marks at uni now because it is so rare.

  8. CVLR says:

    Goddamnit Kirk, why does reading you have to be like being strapped in that Clockwork Orange contraption and forced to look and hear and feel.

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