The school library inside Benilde-St. Margaret's junior and senior high is now nearly barren of books.

Along the back wall, in an area partitioned off as a writing center, novels such as "Anna Karenina" and "Lonesome Dove" sit lonely on a few short bookshelves. Some issues of Time, National Geographic and other magazines are on display by the door.

But the tall stacks of 5,000 books that towered in the main room last school year are gone. Teachers brought a few into classrooms, but most were donated to schools in Africa. Now the room is filled with tables and chairs where students gather with their school laptops.

Leaders at the school in St. Louis Park decided against trying to duplicate what area public libraries offer. Instead, they will emphasize teaching the school's 1,200 students to find reliable information electronically. It is among the first schools in the state to take out stacks and transform its library into a digital learning center.

Schools nationwide are beginning to wrestle with how quickly and how far to step into the world of digital libraries. Collections of printed books seem more and more limited in the face of the vast array of research material and literature online. At the same time, some argue that curling up with a printed book offers needed respite for students distracted by constant social media and the increasingly digital focus of homework time.

"Sometimes people say, 'Oh, that's so sad you have no books in the library,'" senior high principal Sue Skinner said. "Well, there are books -- they just look different."

About 20 students sat in small groups at library tables during a recent free period. Some opened textbooks. Many flipped open their MacBook laptops. Students don't have to be silent in the Benilde library anymore; it's OK to speak while working together.

Senior Kiley Petersen flipped through her "World Religions" text while her friends worked on math. She doesn't miss the stacks, she said.

"I never really used the actual library before," she said. "It's embarrassing. I'm a senior in high school and never used a book."

She has used books at other libraries, though: To research school projects, she goes to a public library near her Minnetonka home.

Junior Will Jarvis said it's faster to use electronics.

"Apple F," Jarvis said of his search command. "That's crucial. It saves so much time."

The decision to go digital at Benilde came gradually, Skinner said. While schools nationwide are scaling back their libraries for budget reasons, that wasn't the case at Benilde, a private Catholic school. The staff got rid of many outdated books when the library was moved in 2001. Later, they noticed students weren't using the remaining books. Meanwhile, at national conferences they learned that research was changing.

Administrators gave teachers first crack at books slated for donation, Skinner said. English teachers were concerned about having fiction books on hand in print, so Skinner had them buy titles to keep in their classrooms.

Skinner said the library space is still a work in progress, but she thinks of it as a "learning commons." Teachers are there to help with writing and math, and she envisions furnishing it with comfortable chairs and putting student artwork on the walls.

Mindy Muenzberg, whose son is a junior at Benilde, said she knows the students have great access to books at public libraries, but the nearly bookless room gives her pause.

"With the age of the Internet, I know things are going to change," she said. "For someone our age, it's kind of startling to see a library without stacks of books."

Kathy Dillon was involved in the school's parent association last year when the changes were discussed.

"At first we were all like 'You're doing what?'" she said. But then they saw how the switch would fit the school's needs better, she said. Her daughter was already using county library books when she wrote papers, Dillon said. For pleasure reading, "I think they buy, I think they borrow. ... They kind of pass their books around," she said.

Social learning

Schools nationwide are rethinking how to provide students with resources, said Susan Ballard, president of the American Association of School Librarians. It's much easier to forgo physical books if, as at Benilde, each student has a laptop and access to physical books at home or in other places, she and others said.

A prep school outside of Boston caused a stir when it removed its book stacks three years ago. A few other libraries have since followed suit.

Some schools have set up more collaborative spaces in their libraries. "This generation of kids ... learning is a social experience for them," Ballard said.

Nationally, teachers have mixed verdicts on how technology is affecting students' research, a Pew Internet Project survey showed. While electronic access is helpful, teachers are worried that students rely too much on search engines and "think, in effect, that Google equals research," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project.

Students have difficulty judging the quality of information on search engines, the survey found, making that skill a high teaching priority.

William Powers, author of "Hamlet's Blackberry," which argues that people need to balance online and offline worlds, said librarians have competing schools of thought on electronic vs. print, with many seeing different values in each.

Any school that has the budget for both but removes print "is really shortchanging their students," he said. Students gain a lot from sitting down with a printed book, undistracted, he explained: "It's a space apart for the mind."

Back at Benilde, Petersen said she prefers to read novels and popular titles on paper. That's apparently true for others, too. When sophomores had to choose a book to read over winter break, only two out of nearly 60 chose e-books.

New responsibilities

Benilde's librarian, Lynn Bottge, was against e-books until she researched them.

"It would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars" to maintain stacks of hard-copy books at Benilde, she said. Under a deal available with one distributor, the school would have access to a catalog of about 200,000 scholarly e-books but pay only when they're downloaded. The school subscribes to dozens of databases, which students can access throughout the building or at home with passwords.

"I think we're in the era now where the library is not in one place," said Bottge, who will retire in January.

The new librarian will have a lot to teach students about getting good information -- and being good online citizens -- in the digital age, Skinner said: "The role of the librarian, or the library media specialist, has never been more important."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102