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If Libraries Remove Computers, Will Anyone Come?

If iPads and other new mobile computers catch on, libraries might not need to offer rooms full of computers for students to do their research, writing, and Facebooking. But if that happens, will students have any reason left to visit the library?

That’s the provocative question posed by Brian Mathews, assistant university librarian at the University of California at Santa Barbara, on his blog this week.

The trend in the last few years was to add more computers to the library, creating spaces often called “information commons.” And during that time, visits to the library have increased greatly. “I think the key to our current success has been the computers,” Mr. Mathews says on his blog.

But now Mr. Mathews says he hears colleagues planning to remove desktops and trying programs to loan out iPads or netbooks to students who want to use a computer while in the library. “So the real question is: What happens when they don’t need computers anymore?”

His answer is sobering for library officials: “If you take the computers out of the commons, I think you’d see our numbers drop by half,” he argues.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Mathews said he did think that libraries can find ways to remain relevant and offer services that will keep students coming through the door. But he said it might involve making more changes in what campus libraries offer.

“It’s key to start having that conversation now,” he said.

Are computers the key to current library success? What should libraries offer if a mobile-computer revolution does sweep through campuses in the near future?

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