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At Stanford University the Engineering Library is getting rid of 85 percent of the books and magazines on its shelves. Librarians say that for engineers, paper is becoming obsolete. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: The periodical shelves at Stanford University's Engineering Library are almost empty. Helen Josephine, who runs the library, says in the last five years, they've moved online.

Ms. HELEN JOSEPHINE (Head Librarian, Stanford University's Engineering Library): Those are available through their laptops. Some of them now have even mobile apps. So whenever the student needs to look up information online, it's available to them. They don't need to come to the library to use it.

SYDELL: Josephine says the students are also finding less use for many of the books that are in the library.

For years, students would search the indexes of half a dozen volumes looking for the right formula. But not anymore.

Ms. JOSEPHINE: Now with books being digitized and available through full text search capabilities, they can find that formula quite easily.

SYDELL: While there are some basic formulas in engineering, it's a field that changes rapidly, particularly in specialties like bio and software engineering. Traditional textbooks have rarely been able to keep up. Engineering Dean Jim Plummer says his faculty is increasingly using online books.

Professor JIM PLUMMER (Engineering Dean, Stanford University): So it allows our faculty to change examples, to put in new homework problems, to use new examples in lectures and things like that in almost a real time way.

SYDELL: The Engineering Library has 80,000 books on the shelf, and like most libraries, it was acquiring more all the time. They were running out of room. The time had come to build a new library. Michael Keller is the head of Stanford's library system. Instead of creating more space for books, they decided to create less.

Mr. MICHAEL KELLER (Director, Stanford University's Library System): As the world turns, they're increasingly digital. And as the world turns, more of the items that appear in physical form in previous decades and centuries are appearing in digital form.

SYDELL: When the new library opens, there will be 10,000 engineering books on the shelves, a drop of more than 85 percent from the old library. Keller says they determined which books to keep on the shelf by looking at how frequently a book was checked out. The vast majority of the collection hadn't been off the shelves in five years. Keller expects eventually there won't be any books on the shelves of the Engineering Library.

For the moment, it's only the Engineering Library at Stanford that's cutting back on books, but Keller says he sees what's coming down the pike by looking at the current crop of students in every department.

Mr. KELLER: They write their papers online and they read articles online, and many, many, many of them read chapters and books online. I can see, in this population of students, behaviors that clearly indicate where this is all going.

SYDELL: It is still rare among libraries around the country to get rid of such a large amount of books. But the signs are there that libraries are laying the groundwork for a different future. Libraries all over the country are spending more of their money on electronic resources and less on books, according to a survey by the Association of Research Libraries.

Librarians like Helen Josephine are looking forward to spending less time with books and more time with people.

Ms. JOSEPHINE: That's what we're so excited about, the idea of actually offering more services, offering more workshops, offering more one-on-one time with the students.

SYDELL: But universities that have tried to push students to use more digital books have also gotten some pushback. A group of disabled students sued Arizona State University over its use of the Kindle because it wasn't fully accessible to the visually impaired. Students at Stanford are mixed about the shift. Engineering student Sam Tsai was checking out some old-fashioned paper books.

Mr. SAM TSAI (Engineering Student, Stanford University): To read books on the screen is kind of tiring for me, so I sometimes like paper form. But if I can access books online, it's much more convenient for me. So I would actually prefer that, as well.

SYDELL: And at least for now, at least, Tsai can have the option of both.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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