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Students work in the computer room at the Killam Memorial Library at Dalhousie University in Halifax.Paul Darrow/The Globe and Mail

University librarians may be the keepers of the academy's printed knowledge, but in Nova Scotia they can't wait to get a couple of million books off their shelves.

A consortium of the province's university libraries is pressing ahead with a proposal to craft a central repository that would house about a fifth of their collections, freeing up badly needed space. Most of some two million offloaded books, journals and other holdings would still be accessible through the central bank, but perhaps half a million duplicates would be ditched.

The primary goal is not making room for more books. In an age when students expect all knowledge to be available online rather than on a dusty shelf, the solemn, solitary university library is having to reinvent itself to be a more social and collaborative hub on campus. Librarians are eager to reclaim what shelving space they can for students and scholars, hoping to control the costs of future expansion. And as collections are increasingly digitized, they are putting more energy into training students to track down and utilize information.

"The main demand is that libraries are changing," said Donna Bourne-Tyson, Dalhousie University's head librarian. "With the collections that are used less, it's really not a good use of prime real estate. If we can guarantee ready access to the collection within a day or less, we can free up the space on campus for collaborative learning."

The repository plan is popular among Nova Scotia's academic librarians, but detractors worry that under its delivery-on-demand system, library users will have a harder time making a surprise find among a sea of shelves.

"What people will tell you we're losing is the ability for serendipitous discovery while browsing through the stacks, because it's often the book that you see four books away from the one you were looking for that sparks the idea," Ms. Bourne-Tyson said. But digital software for scrolling through catalogued book covers may offer a solution.

At some universities, the need for more space is too acute to ignore. Nova Scotia's libraries collectively acquire some 58,000 new holdings each year, and even though digitization is helping ease the pressure, some schools are approaching "a one-in, one-out situation" that requires discarding one book to make room for a new one, Ms. Bourne-Tyson said. Getting rid of books – or "weeding" to librarians – is a touchy task she describes as "kind of an art and kind of a science."

"No institution wants to say that they're getting rid of material, but in these times we do have to," said Bill Slauenwhite, who is steering the repository proposal and manages the Novanet consortium, which is made up of the province's university and college libraries.

In a province where postsecondary schools have endured successive years of 3-per-cent cuts to their government funding, costs are a constant concern. The proposed repository could possibly occupy up to 22,500 square feet in a former government archival building in Halifax's Woodside Industrial Park, and cost up to $300,000 a year to operate, plus leasing costs. But it would free up 57,000 square feet of combined space across university libraries which would cost $14.1-million to build, according to a feasibility study by consulting firm Deloitte.

The next step would be asking "for a pot of money from [government] to go forward," Mr. Slauenwhite said. But while the NDP had paid for the feasibility study, the provincial Liberals won power in an election earlier this month, meaning the librarians have a new audience to persuade.

The librarians can point to success stories. The University of Toronto has a repository in the city's northwest end to help house part of its sprawling collection. And consortia such as the Harvard Despository in Massachusetts and the TriUniversity Group of Libraries (TUG) – set up in 1995 by the University of Guelph, University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University – have similar facilities that served as models for Nova Scotia.

Yet even those universities face space challenges as they try to reshape their libraries to meet the evolving needs of a modern campus. The TUG repository has filled up faster than expected since launching in 1996, and "we know we're going to hit a wall at a certain point," said Mark Haslett, Waterloo's university librarian.

"[We're] trying to take the space that we have, repurpose it to meet that balance," he said. "There's a demand for collaborative group study space, there's a demand for quiet space, and then silent space."

These new areas typically include rooms designed for noisy group work, but also house 3D printers and cutting-edge computing technology, as well as centres for writing or math support and language labs.

While the digital era has profoundly changed libraries, it hasn't diminished their popularity as a place for serious thinking, learning, concentration – and socializing. On a typical late-October day, more than 17,000 people still pass through the U of Waterloo libraries' turnstiles, according to a recent report.

Ms. Bourne-Tyson has often heard suggestions that cramped libraries can surely make room by scrapping some of the rows of computers stretching across nearly every learning commons – after all, the average student now brings at least a laptop and smartphone to campus each day. But "the funny thing is, [the computers are] still busy all the time," she said.

"What students tell us is, they like the library computers because they're no fun," she said. "Their own devices are too distracting."