Will UNC Libraries Toss Their Books?

Across the university system, digitization continues apace.

If you’re of a certain vintage you might recall diminutive octogenarian Clara Peller barking the signature line on a Wendy’s commercial: “Where’s the beef?” And if you are in that age group and walk into the James B. Hunt Jr. Library on the N.C. State University Centennial Campus you might find yourself wondering, “Where’s the books?”

Most of the five-story library’s 221,000-plus square feet more closely resemble a blend of modern museum or international air terminal, topped off with mall food-court seating. There’s an art wall and audio rooms, a 390-seat auditorium and a café, an immersion theater, faculty work rooms and student study rooms, a learning commons, and a lactation room.

Absent is the monastic patina of tightly packed books, ranked along row after row of parallel shelves. Instead, glowing laptop screens permeate the panorama. Study buddies surf the Web, toil over homework assignments, and prepare for pending tests at a vast array of tables. Small groups work on PowerPoint and video projects in nearly 100 glass-lined study rooms.

Almost hidden in plain sight among an arrangement of accent chairs are a few display shelves containing a paltry 26,000 books. These pay obligatory homage to an increasingly archaic academic endeavor, one that is decidedly less exciting than learning via an interactive computer delivering information at the blazing speed of the Internet.

I asked students at random about the bookBot. Most said they had never used it. Still others weren’t even sure where it was located.Of course, books are still available for checkout—about 1.7 million copies in all—mostly through a robotic book-delivery system heralded by the university as “a transformational tool for the pioneering research libraries that are deploying it.” This bookBot maintains a catalog of barcoded volumes in some 18,000 storage bins, which can be retrieved through a touchscreen process.

On a recent stroll through the library, I asked students at random about the bookBot. Most said they had never used it. Some said they were unfamiliar with how it worked. Still others weren’t even sure where it was located. All of them said their preferred method of study involves digital and electronic materials, not leafy pages pressed inside a hard cover.

The UNC System is responding to that trend. N.C. State, like nearly all of the other 15 UNC campuses, has been rapidly increasing its digital and electronic collections, while paper books and materials are decreasing.

The Martin Center decided to examine this trend and sent an initial survey to the deans and directors in charge of the campus libraries. A single, terse survey response, more closely resembling a press release, was returned by Sarah Falls, university librarian at UNC School of the Arts and chair of the UNC Library Advisory Council. When the Martin Center followed up with the other librarians, they directed us to Falls’s reply.

“Overall, our libraries are vital and vibrant centers for learning, teaching, use of collections and research on all of our campuses,” Falls wrote. Her responses to the survey questions were as follows:

How reliant is your library on digital materials, and what is the trend?

Academic libraries have collected books, journals, dissertations, data, films, and other materials in both analog and digital formats for decades. As academic and research libraries, we are committed to [the] preservation of the historical record while also adding new materials in all formats.

Have you begun removing books, collections, and journals from your library in favor of digital access?


Do you envision the digital technology infrastructure replacing a physical building as the future library model?


Do you have any concerns—First Amendment, freedom of speech, government overreach, or other—about converting from the autonomy of having permanent, physical materials on a shelf to online sources? Specifically, do you worry that that shift could usher in digital manipulation of the content, language, and message of the original authors of classic books, research, and learning, to conform to ever-shifting political, cultural, or social whims, sensitivities, and pressures (Think Roald Dahl children’s book rewrites), or even outright eradication?


Falls declined to be interviewed for additional information. She asked for written questions instead. However, she refused several requests to respond after she was sent those written questions.

Additionally, messages left for Randy Ramsey, UNC Board of Governors chairman, and Temple Sloan, chairman of the BOG Committee on Educational Planning, Policies and Programs, were not returned.

UNC-System libraries are deliberately shifting toward digital delivery.Fortunately, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), affiliated with the Department of Education, collects some university library data. After extensive inspection of IPEDS statistics, a clear picture emerged. UNC-System libraries are deliberately shifting toward digital delivery.

From 2016 to 2021, according to IPEDS:

• The number of physical books declined from 12.4 million to 11.3 million at all UNC libraries. That is a drop of 8.9 percent. The number of physical books dropped at 11 campuses, ranging from 2.1 percent at UNC Asheville to 55 percent at UNC Pembroke. Increases at the five remaining campuses ranged from 0.4 percent at Fayetteville State University to 13.6 percent at UNC-Chapel Hill. Total physical collections (books, media, and serials) fell from 24.6 million to 24 million, or two percent. Total physical collections shrank at 11 campuses, ranging from two percent at UNC Asheville to 56 percent at UNC Pembroke. Increases at the remaining five campuses ranged from one percent at East Carolina University to 15 percent at Fayetteville State.

• The number of digital books surpassed physical books, soaring from 9.2 million to 14.8 million, a nearly 61 percent jump. 14 campuses experienced double-digit percent increases or higher. Falls’s UNC School of the Arts experienced a whopping 1,465 percent growth, and N.C. Central University saw expansion by 1,072 percent. Western Carolina University showed a 10.8 percent digital book reduction, and Appalachian State University recorded a decline of 5.7 percent. All 16 campuses expanded their overall digital collections (books, databases, media, serials), ranging from 0.7 percent at Western Carolina University to 1,111 percent at Winston-Salem State University. Systemwide, total digital collections ballooned 145 percent, from 12 million to 29.5 million.

• Data for staffing was available for 2020 and 2021 only. Overall, full-time equivalent positions dipped 2.5 percent. 14 campuses trimmed FTE positions, with eight experiencing double-digit decreases. North Carolina A&T State University had no change, while Appalachian State had a nearly 81 percent surge. The number of librarians, specifically, fell 4.4 percent, from 510.5 to 488 positions. Seven campuses cut librarian positions, and six had no change. Three showed gains, led by UNC Wilmington at eight percent.

• Systemwide, annual expenditures remained statistically flat at $159.7 million. Spending was reduced at seven campuses, led by N.C. Central University, which slashed expenditures 50 percent. Expenditures swelled at nine campuses, led by Winston-Salem State at 41 percent.

Systemwide, total digital collections ballooned 145 percent.• Total salaries and wages rose to $70.2 million in 2020 but shrank to $66.3 million in 2021, which was a 0.5 percent decrease from 2016. Eight campuses hiked their compensation totals over the five-year period, including UNC Wilmington at 32 percent and Winston-Salem State at 31 percent. However, total wages and salaries dropped at eight campuses. Fayetteville State lowered those costs 40 percent, and Elizabeth City State University pruned them 35 percent.

• Systemwide, expenditures for materials and services totaled nearly $62 million in 2021, a 1.6 percent hike over the period in question. Those costs grew at nine campuses, led by Winston-Salem State at 77 percent and UNC Greensboro at 60 percent. Seven campuses reduced their expenditures. N.C. Central carved off 90 percent of those costs, from $2 million to $191,482.

On a national level, these sorts of trends are of interest to officials at the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). The digital-versus-physical library divide is gaining more scrutiny. Jay Malone, ACRL executive director, said the organization’s 2023 Environmental Scan has just been released. It contains a section on library collections and the accelerated shift to eBooks and digital materials.

That report states that, nationally, “Many academic libraries shifted their collecting strategies to focus on eBooks and digital collections in order to support remote learning” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although acquisitions already were trending toward digital materials, eBook purchases nationwide grew from 54 percent of new acquisitions in fiscal year 2020 to 69 percent in 2021. Many libraries set their approval profiles to e-preferred, and increases are expected to continue in digital procurements while declining for print.

Nevertheless, an entirely bookless library is not on the horizon.

“I don’t see a growing philosophy or trend in that direction,” ACRL President Erin Ellis said. However, “the demand for digital resources and decreases in budgets may lead libraries to adopt digital-first purchasing models.”

ACRL Vice President Beth McNeil agreed. “I am aware of university libraries who privilege e-access, but not to the extent of not buying print if print is preferred.”

Even a centralized, all-digital library wouldn’t lead to the closure of campus locations.Yet even if a centralized, all-digital library were to emerge in the future, that wouldn’t necessarily lead to the closure of campus libraries. Such institutions “still need staff—librarians and other library workers, humans—to make resources accessible, to train students and others on using the resources, to consider alternatives, and to make decisions on new resources and resources no longer needed,” McNeil said. “A library includes resources, plus people with expertise, plus space for learning and research.”

Ellis added there is a tremendous number of resources that are not available online. They have not been, and will not be, digitized. “So while, yes, a library could move completely digital, relying entirely on digitally available resources compromises the availability of diverse materials that present marginalized perspectives,” Ellis said. “There are a significant number of resources from underrepresented voices that are undigitized and not accessible outside of the print format. Eliminating these types of print and primary resources seriously diminishes their accessibility and may exacerbate collection bias.”

Meanwhile, student patrons at N.C. State’s Hunt Library were unaware of any digital-physical fray but had definite opinions about reducing the number of physical books and the trend towards digital collections and online learning.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a good move” to replace books with digital materials, said Shrutika Kumareshan, a senior biology major from Cary. Nevertheless, she doesn’t think fewer books on display lessens the intellectual vibe of studying in a library. “We’re used to seeing everyone in that mode of just being serious, but with devices” instead of hardbacks, she said. “So I would say as a student it motivates me to see other people like that. I think I still get the same effect.”

“I’m okay with the idea of transitioning to digital,” said Bruno Linhales of Victoria, Brazil, an engineering student. “I actually prefer it because it’s less content to carry on your back.” But Linhales did pause for thought about the potential for Big Brother-style politicized control over digital and electronic learning. “I think digital is good for us. It brings a lot of advantages, but it also makes us rely on someone else who controls the technology,” he said.

Today’s university library is clearly not your father’s traditional cathedral of books. How well such institutions serve scholarly learning, research, and pedagogy demands vigilance, transparency, and accountability.

Dan E. Way is a senior communications manager in the North Carolina Department of State Treasurer. He was previously a writer for Carolina Journal and the editor of the Chapel Hill Herald.