May 27, 2022

Dan Cohen on “The Books of College Libraries Are Turning Into Wallpaper”

UPDATED June 1, 2019 with Comments From Readers & Response by Cohen

A new op/ed by Dan Cohen, Vice Provost for Information Collaboration at Northeastern University and published by The Atlantic.

From the Op/Ed (Full Text approx. 2300 words):

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.

These stark statistics present a conundrum for those who care about libraries and books. At the same time that books increasingly lie dormant, library spaces themselves remain vibrant—Snell Library at Northeastern now receives well over 2 million visits a year—as retreats for focused study and dynamic collaboration, and as sites of an ever wider array of activities and forms of knowledge creation and expression, including, but also well beyond, the printed word.


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.


A small number of regional pools of books at a monumental scale—tens of millions of books from scores of universities working together—are already envisioned in the United States, which will ensure preservation and access for future generations and effectively act as gigantic shared libraries, or what David Prosser, the executive director of Research Libraries UK, has called “collective collections.” “Print books are historical artefacts … but some are more valuable artefacts than others,” Prosser has argued. “No library can be completely universal and decisions need to be made about what to collect and where to store material. By looking at collections collectively we can better serve the needs of readers, ensuring that what we have is well looked after (and yes, sometimes that means in ‘remote-storage’).”

Read the Complete Article (approx. 2300 words)

About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.