What happened to the books in the university bookstore?

Summer finds me in the midst of my Oregon Coast existence, a life I’ve built over the last 15 years or so, with roots that reach even further back in time—back to Eugene and Southern Oregon. This year my friend and colleague Patricia Santana decided to visit me here. On the day of her arrival, I headed over the coastal range to the Oregon State University Bookstore – her shuttle stop – thinking I could poke around until she got there.

I arrived to discover that the textbook area on the lower floor resembled an empty ballroom—no people or books to be seen. What surprised me, though, was the fact that they sold absolutely no trade books on the upper level—in the Beaver Store.

I guess I shouldn’t have been astonished. The small college bookstore supporting the school where I am currently employed dropped most of its meager trade book offerings awhile back. And many of my students insist, with a fair amount of vehemence, that – in time – there will be no more hard copy books. It will all be online, they say.

I’m definitely feeling like a dinosaur—analog—what have you. As I refrained from buying Beaver wear (my allegiance to my alma mater prevented me from picking up a much-needed pair of sweats), I thought about my former university bookstore in Eugene. I frequented it back in the early eighties, when it was the best place to while away some time after a long day of classes—or better yet, finals. I’d spend hours in there, pouring over the trade books, and I know some of my dorm-mates did the same. Once known as University Bookstore, it is called the Duck Store these days.

In 1988, I went on to attend the University of Washington, and I found their university bookstore offered an even more impressive trade book section, one that was especially busy around the holidays. In fact, I landed in Seattle and immediately encountered statistics like: Seattle has more readers per capita than any other city in the nation. Seattle is also often ranked the most literate city in the country, with its enthusiastic support of libraries and numerous bookstores.

While I continue to display shelves of good old fashioned books in my own home, I must confess, I finally broke down and started buying a few e-books last summer. I have not been fully converted, though I suspect I will continue to read them when I travel. However, I didn’t find e-books to be as convenient as some people purport them to be. One time, for example, I felt uncomfortable leaving my iPad (with its Kindle app) resting on a chaise lounge while I took a dip in a public swimming pool. I carried it back to my room first. Also, batteries do run out at inconvenient times. Finally, like many others, I like the smell and tactile quality of paper.

As a librarian, I’ve thought a lot about the digital divide, and I’ve done what I can to bridge it. I’d certainly like to see everyone have access to the information they need in order to live fulfilling lives, which means I also support the goal of finding ways to train people on the efficient use of information technologies.

I, myself, recently learned how to check out e-books and digital audio books (ultimately downloading them to my mobile device) from the San Diego Public Library. I didn’t even have to step through the door. To be sure, this was a convenient way for me to have plenty of books at my disposal during my time here in Oregon.

Public libraries are trying to keep up with all of these information format changes, but perhaps not all of their patrons will be able to do the same. Setting aside the issue of effective training, some people will never be able to afford the necessary devices—or keep up with the upgrades. I hope libraries continue to collect relevant hard copy books for such folks.

And when it comes to education, I can’t help but think that the simplicity of hard copy materials must make it easier for teachers to share books with their students, not to mention bring across the fundamentals of reading and writing.

Imagine trying to make sure every student has the correct mobile device before the school year starts. Imagine roaming around the classroom, checking to see if every child knows exactly how to download the book of the hour and open up it properly. Of course, from there the students would actually have to read what was on the screen (hopefully, other distracting features would be disabled).

The Internet has brought many opportunities to our students, such as easy access to primary sources for historians, as well as information on the most current research and materials that can only be found in specific locations around the globe. This has allowed resourceful students to take certain creative leaps that weren’t possible during the eighties.

Surely the Internet already plays a role in closing the educational divide between the haves and have nots. The knowledgeable searcher can uncover work that once required a trip to the library or a bookstore (though this is not true for materials under copyright). And we’ve all been reading about the free online classes provided by companies, such as Coursera.

Yet while the Internet offers our students plenty of potential benefits, this may not include the challenge of learning to critically read and digest longer works (instead of just skimming the web for answers). A good – persistent – teacher and a set of frill-free books may be required.

That said, it does appear we are already throwing out good old fashioned books and replacing them with e-books. I do wonder, however, if we will ultimately come to decide that a complete conversion to digital materials would just be too cumbersome.

Patricia and I did have a fine time beachcombing and hiking through local forests. In getting her on her way back to San Diego, I managed to reach her shuttle stop ahead of schedule, so we decided to spend some time in downtown Corvallis. There we were heartened to discover the Book Bin, a wonderfully large bookstore along the same lines as Powell’s Books in Portland and the Smith Family Bookstore in Eugene. Needless to say, we poked around a bit.

Poem in Episodic

My poem, “Houses,” has been published in the Summer 2013 issue of Episodic.