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A library without books sounds like an oxymoron. But Stanford University's engineering library is about to kiss 85% of its titles goodbye.
As reported on NPR Thursday morning, the library's new building houses just 10,000 physical volumes, down from 80,000. Stanford's librarians told NPR that more and more students are getting the information, periodicals, and even full texts they need via the Internet. Online, it takes students mere seconds to find the same formulas that once sent them hunting through the stacks.
Academic texts' shift to the Internet could be great news for Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , which has teamed up with several major universities, including Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, Oxford, and Cornell, to digitize their collections for the entire world to see. Lest you think Big Goo's doing so entirely out of the not-evilness of its heart, bear in mind that it stands to collect referral fees for related publisher and bookseller links on each volume in its Google Books library.
The move toward e-books is also a potential boon for Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPad and Amazon.com's (Nasdaq: AMZN ) Kindle, which could each replace a backpack full of heavy textbooks for weary undergrads -- assuming such devices can meet every student's needs. NPR's report noted that an Arizona State University plan to distribute textbooks via Kindle drew protests because the gadget wasn't accessible enough for the visually impaired.
Textbook publishers such as McGraw-Hill (NYSE: MHP ) could also benefit from going electronic. They can sell directly to students, eliminating the middlemen of campus bookstores, or at least replacing them with the potentially more reasonable fees Amazon and Apple impose. Publishers can also maintain high prices while eliminating printing costs and other overhead, fattening their margins. And they can decimate the used-book market with copy-protected volumes that can't be passed from one student to another. (Just when you thought the college-textbook market couldn't get any more mind-bogglingly expensive …)
Librarians might not suffer, either, even as the information they curate migrates online. NPR reports that Stanford's library staff is looking forward to less time lugging books back and forth, and more time working one-on-one with students seeking knowledge.
As for the 70,000 books vanishing from Stanford's shelves, they probably won't be missed. According to NPR, most of the books excluded from the new library hadn't been touched in five years or more.