At Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., for example, a plan is in place that would see the creation of a "bookless" engineering library within five years.
Meanwhile, for the last five years the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has operated a digital archive called "D Space," which includes books, articles, and images. The school is working on a way to archive huge numbers of digital journals, even if they eventually get pulled off the Web.
In place of the seemingly endless rows of shelves crammed with musty books, these new libraries have communal work stations, computers, and printers.
University libraries in Connecticut are not on the verge of eliminating books, but their gradual accumulation of digital resources has been going on for more than a decade.
Brinley Franklin, vice-provost of libraries at the University of Connecticut, says that since UConn began acquiring digital copies of journals and books about 10 years ago, the university has been able to offer greater resources to students and faculty.
For example, UConn has room for about 4,500 subscriptions to print journals, which are especially useful in the sciences, since new research appears in journals long before it reaches textbooks. However, Franklin says, in addition to print subscriptions, UConn has more than 25,000 subscriptions to electronic journals, for which no room would be available if they came only in print.
"It's really allowed us to offer a lot more information than we ever have," he says.
The move to electronic resources encompasses more than journals and books. Many colleges are following UConn's lead in making course reserve material available online, enabling students to read it from their homes or dorms at any time of day.
UConn's electronic course reserve program has been in place for almost a decade, and about half of the library's $5.5 million annual collections budget is devoted to electronic resources.
But Franklin is quick to point out that the demise of print is often exaggerated.
To begin with, less than half of academic journals are currently available electronically, and the percentage for books is much lower.
"There's also a question of whether people really want books in electronic forms," Franklin says, pointing out that book sales in the United States have never been higher.
Universities simply aren't going to waste money and space on resources that no one uses, so for the time being electronic books will mostly come in the forms of reference works and technical manuals, which get updated frequently.
But public taste isn't the only impediment to fully digitized libraries: There's also the issue of copyright infringement.
Everything published in the United States since 1927 is protected by copyright law; when it comes to foreign books, it becomes much more complicated. Research librarians around the country have found that much of the work in digitizing a collection involves the laborious task of finding the copyright owner of a work and getting permission to render it in electronic form.
The Web search engine Google recently announced ambitious plans to create a free digital library. As a first step, the company entered into a partnership with top research libraries, including those of Harvard and Oxford universities, to digitize their entire collections.
However, a storm of controversy soon followed over concerns about copyright violation, and Google is now planning to offer only material already in the public domain, according to a company spokesman.
Meanwhile, the American Association of Publishers has called for a moratorium on Google's project so that the issue of copyright infringement can be studied.
For universities, though, the future is definitely digital, even though students likely will always have the chance to take a volume of Shakespeare off the shelf and peruse it at their leisure.
"I like to use the metaphor of a tunnel," Franklin says. "When we went in, everything was available in print; when we come out, everything will be available digitally. But right now, we don't know where we are in the tunnel."