Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Bookless library nothing to brag about

What a sad sight: A university library without a single book.

In Florida, some call that progress.

Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland — a pet project of Gov. Rick Scott — opened its doors last week and immediately one of the most talked about features became its “futuristic” digital library.

Most academic libraries have digital resources these days. But libraries with reading chairs, expensive architecture — and not a single traditional book?

That’s rare even for a university focused entirely on science, technology, math and engineering — the trendy STEM curriculum to which Scott subscribes at the expense of subjects like liberal arts.

Having no books is nothing to brag about, considering new research (the ground-breaking Academically Adrift and the latest, Aspiring Adults Adrift, by sociology professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa) that points to the lack of development of critical thinking skills in higher education as the reason why many graduates can’t hold down a job.

One of the disconnects: The graduates’ dependence on all things technological and on social media that gave them a distorted of sense of being part of networks and having contacts and skills. In the real world, that didn’t translate into jobs and well-being.

But perhaps the library of Florida’s 12th public university is only in line with the thinking that led to the university's creation at a time when the other 11 — some of them with prestigious STEM programs — were stripped of $300 million in funding by Scott and the GOP-dominated Legislature.

Those behind the anomaly included Miami-Dade Republicans seeking political influence with their powerful North Florida counterparts. They voted to fund FPU and wouldn’t allow voters to decide if they wanted to pass a half-cent tax increase to pay for needed improvements at Miami Dade College.

So what to do at FPU's opening but talk up what $700 million in taxpayer funds bought? Dramatic architecture by Spaniard Santiago Calatrava; the unrealistic expectation that this stretch of I-4 will become Florida’s Silicon Valley — and the non-library, where the claim to fame is that students can access more than 135,000 ebooks on tablets or laptops.

Breaking news: So can the rest of us. It’s called Amazon.com.

Serious university libraries, however, are known for their extensive collections — invaluable research tools for teaching scientists and students — that include printed books, papers and sketches, as rare as this generation may think these are.

So it’s par for the course that the president of a university created by politicians seeking dogmatic influence over education would be boasting that he’s heard people already refer to “Poly” as “Florida’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” Catchy PR gimmick, but far from the truth.

The school isn’t yet accredited, and Florida hardly lacks prestigious STEM programs, including at nearby University of South Florida and University of Florida.

For the sake of the eager 500 students attracted by free tuition, I hope the university will some day become an academic institution worth celebrating.

But boasting of its bookless library isn’t a confidence booster.