College libraries across the country, including Hillsdale Col­lege’s Mossey Library, are seeing a decline in the number of books checked out. EXTERNAL AFFAIRS | COURTESY

Amidst the massive decline of stu­dents checking out physical books in American uni­ver­sities, Hillsdale stu­dents show them­selves exempt from the trend. 

A 64% decline in the number of books checked out at Yale’s under­graduate library in Feb­ruary 2019 led the uni­versity to relocate three-quarters of its books to create more space for study rooms. As a result, stu­dents staged a protest, and Yale decided to expand the number of books in its library rather than increase the amount of study spaces.

Although stu­dents and their books arose vic­to­rious in this fight, one glaring fact remains: uni­versity libraries across the country are expe­ri­encing a massive decline in the use and cir­cu­lation of their in-house books and materials. 

The Atlantic reported that  at the Uni­versity of Vir­ginia, college stu­dents checked out 238,000 books during the 2008 – 2009 school year, but that number has shrunk to just 60,000 this past school year. This sta­tistic is no dif­ferent for North­western Uni­versity, whose cir­cu­lation among under­graduate stu­dents declined 50% from 2013 to 2017. This trend is not limited to under­grads; for graduate stu­dents and faculty members at UVA, use of in-house books is down both 61% and 46%, respectively. 

Hillsdale College’s Mossey Library has also expe­ri­enced a decline, although not as severe.

There has been a 2% decrease in the amount of in-house mate­rials checked out and picked up from the 2017 – 2018 school year to the 2018 – 2019 year, according to Public Ser­vices Librarian Linda Moore. 

“I would say that we have seen a decline perhaps not as sig­nif­icant as other places but it’s sort of hard to tell because what people use to count their figures are dif­ferent,” Moore said. “We use checkouts, renewals, and we also count in-house use — books that are picked up off the shelves and left here — and those are the things that we con­sider as circulation.”

According to Moore, stu­dents checked out 113,000 books in 2018, which is 1,000 less than the checkout number 20 years ago. 

“The problem with these figures is that they don’t include e‑books, so that would add some amount back in there,” Moore said. “That’s why it’s really hard to compare back to 1999 to the 2000s. The internet was fairly new so people hadn’t done a lot with e‑books.” 

The internet com­pletely rev­o­lu­tionized the research industry, prompting uni­versity libraries across the country, including Mossey,  to expand their online databases. 

“We have seen an increase in the amount of content available dig­i­tally in both e‑book and e‑journal format,” said Tech­nical Ser­vices Librarian LeAnne Rumler. “Some pub­lishers have switched com­pletely to digital content. We have also seen an increase in the number of ref­erence works which have become available online, making research material more accessible.” 

When asked about the decline of in-house book use, Mossey Library Director Maurine McCourry said that she believes it is the sign of the times, as more stu­dents and faculty defer to elec­tronic data­bases to com­plete their research. 

“The material is available online, and when it’s available online, pub­lishers can make it available more quickly,” McCourry said. “Sci­en­tific journal articles can be pub­lished the next day after the research is com­plete, and you can publish an article right away. The digital, in some cases, is actually the better source of infor­mation now.” 

This avail­ability and reli­a­bility of online mate­rials has led the college to invest and sub­stan­tially increase its online resources.

“On our expen­di­tures on elec­tronic resources, we spend probably three times as much on elec­tronic resources as we do on print mate­rials,” McCourry said. “We have a very healthy book budget for our size library. We still spend a lot on books and we buy all the books the pro­fessors ask us to buy pretty much, but we still just to have access to things like JSTOR, Project Muse, and espe­cially the big science data­bases; that is all very, very expensive. The main part of our expen­di­tures for research mate­rials is our online database which includes e‑books and e‑journals mostly.” 

Moore also explained that this greater access to primary sources and scholarly articles through online data­bases and journals has led to an increase in edu­ca­tional standards. 

“Pro­fessors can be more demanding of the stu­dents because the stu­dents have the resources now,” Moore said. “It’s dif­ferent from the days in which the stu­dents would either use what we would have here or have to go up to the Uni­versity of Michigan or Michigan State. The student doesn’t have to do that anymore.” 

But the con­ve­nience of online pub­li­ca­tions and journals has not led stu­dents to shun the book.

“I think people are still reading — espe­cially at Hillsdale — people are still reading books,” McCourry said. 

And unlike Yale, Mossey Library will not be getting rid of its books anytime soon. 

“I don’t think that at as a small aca­demic library we will ever get rid of our books; they just form too much of the basis of what we do,” Moore said. “There is a value to having some­thing physical in your hand that rep­re­sents the intel­lectual and emo­tional weight of the material that is being pre­sented to you that I find sat­is­fying, and I think a number of the stu­dents here do as well.”