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Storage Centers for Printed or Recorded Material, Part Two

Do y’all remember a few months ago when YHB wrote about our institution deprecating the role of libraries as Storage Centers for Printed or Recorded Material? The process has been going on; the Master Plan has been masterly; the architects have drawn up some tasty sketches of the Library of the Future.

Would any of y’all like to guess how much they will be cutting the open stacks? The space currently occupied by the Music Library is being taken away, so we are losing just over 10% of the square footage of the libraries just in that move. In addition, there is a need for group study space, individual study space, quiet study space and classroom space; evidently the library will provide. There will be some movement to compact (movable) stacks; currently we have one small room with movable stacks, which is accessible only to staff. The Library of the Future, I am given to understand, will have movable stacks open to students wandering through and getting themselves crushed to death. Which I’m in favor of, by the way. If the floors can hold the weight.

Anyway, anybody want to make a guess about the projected cuts to the collection? Take 100 as the base, in shelf-feet if you like, of our current open stacks. How big will our open stacks be? How big will the compact shelving be? How much will we deaccession? A guess?

Just to say—in a conversation with my Best Reader, when I was somewhat despondently wondering if anyone other than library staff would kick up a fuss if our collection were to be cut by X%, I used 25% as a figure of outrage. That is, in making up a number to potentially outrage the faculty, if outrage was going to be had, I went with 25%. That number was made up out of my head, based on the 10% decrease in the footprint, plus the initial memo which made clear that the institution did not view books, periodicals, scores and recordings as a priority over open space. I could have said 20%, I could have said 30%. I was just bullshitting. I’m giving that number just to say—your guess should be more than that.

Yes, more than that.

Also? That other guess you made? More than that.

In one projection, we would keep 30% of our open stacks, put another 30% onto movable shelves, and deaccession the remaining 40%. FORTY PERCENT. And that’s the good projection—the other is 25-25-50.

Oh, did I mention that is the baseline of our current collection? That assumes that we won’t be purchasing any new books between now and whenever the project is complete, say, five years from now. Which we will. So, we need to think about it as half or more of our current collection going away, with half of the remaining books going onto moveable shelves, where they will be used by only the most determined students.

And now, the one where your guess is as good as mine: what will the faculty say? Tho’ of course one couldn’t blame them if they view demands for 6/6 teaching loads to be a more direct attack on them than a library cut in half. Still, Obi-Wan, you are our only hope.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Although there are worse things the administration could do to the faculty, I would expect the faculty's initial response to be extremely negative. If the plan is carefully developed and provides evidence about how cuts of this magnitude will not reduce the effectiveness of the library in meeting the needs of the students, then some, perhaps a majority of the faculty, might be persuaded about it, but many will probably view it as a betrayal of the fundamental commitments of higher learning no matter what the planners say.

Perhaps I judge too much by my own reaction, which was extremely negative, until I discussed the plan carefully with a librarian of my acquaintance. I still don't think the plan is, on its face, anything remotely like a good idea, but I am persuaded that, with appropriate electronic resources to replace print journals and sufficient time to weed the collection thoughtfully, cuts of, say, 25% could be made without harming the collection's value to students. The caveat, of course, is that if the library has been weeding thoughtfully over the years, then there's probably less outdated material to weed now.

According to the Plan, is the decrease in cellulosic books supposed to be made up for via an increase in electronic books, available for digital loan? Or will the total amount of book-knowledge of your library be reduced by that eye-opening amount?

The reveal yesterday was made by the architects, not the Planning Committee, so naturally they aren't responsible for the digital plan. I assume that they are hoping to use on-line databases for almost all the periodicals, and get rid of the paper copies, which is problematic, but, you know, perhaps not as problematic as keeping the paper copies. I have not been reading up on how borrowing e-books is working at academic libraries. It seems problematic, but again, perhaps not as problematic as it might be. I do have to say, while we perhaps don't need as many copies of a particular Shakespeare play as we used to, I'm not convinced we want to go down to one or no hard copies on the shelf, either. We'll see.

Also--I do think that we could have been better at weeding over the last couple of decades (this is almost universally true, I'm told), and that a loss of, say, 15% of the collection could certainly be accomplished without harming the value of the collection to students and faculty. I am skeptical about 25%. I am very skeptical of anything more than that. And I am really, really skeptical that the faculty will be willing or able to spend the kind of time consulting about the material to be kept or tossed. I am convinced, as it happens, that we have far, far too many copies of novels from American writers of the period between WWI and WWII, but I have no idea which ones are valuable (academically) and which ones are not. Presumably there is somebody here teaching that stuff who could spend, oh, thirty hours going down the list and marking off a quota of deaccessionable works. And if it's going to really work, then every faculty member (including adjuncts) would have to spend those hours, and to do it seriously, not just saying keep it all, we can't possibly lose any of them. It would take a massive buy-in. I can't imagine that happening.

And, of course, what we're really talking about is a cut of 75% in the open stacks, with keeping some portion of the rest in various levels of accessibility. The statement that we could do that without hurting the value of the collection to the institution is more or less equivalent to the statement that the bulk of our library is worthless. Isn't it?


It might be worthwhile at this point to link this discussion to the one about the cost of higher education. In particular, I am wondering how, if at all, this Plan is part of the institution's larger plan? To what extent is this about the library as library and to what extent is it about developing the institution in a way that seems prudent to keep the college "competitive" and "efficient"? (I put both of those terms in scare quotes, but they are not necessarily used ironically.)

OK, so "group study space," especially study space that is wired and makes a seamless connection between foodspace, playspace, and workspace, is BIG in university planning nowadays, with libraries as the focal point for building a "learning commons" for the students. In North Carolina, UNC-Chapel Hill overhauled their undergraduate library along these lines about 8 years ago, and NC State totally re-did its reference and study area this way in a project that was finished around 5 years back. It's the latest thing in what colleges are putting in to look great, and my observation of the space at NC State suggests that students make heavy and enthusiastic use of a well-designed learning commons.

If a college wants one of these things, whether for the purpose of attracting or serving students, how can it do that well and at the least feasible cost? Does it require new construction or the conversion of existing spaces? Conversion is probably cheaper than new construction, but it means freeing up space devoted to other purposes, which leads to exactly the sort of painful choices that universities prefer to avoid, but that they can only avoid by letting costs rise.

Does it make sense to say, then, that the library, as a unit in the college whose material presence will grow without end unless a deliberate decision is made to reduce or transform it, is representative of the challenges of cost facing higher education in general? And our sense that there is something fundamentally wrong about cutting away the infrastructure of knowledge that the library's collection embodies is representative of the nature of the resistance to cost cutting where higher education is concerned?

I raise these questions not to pass judgment on what ought to be done with respect to the library, but rather because I'm wondering whether we are just talking about the library here?

Thank you, Chris—it is absolutely true that I see the institution's plan for the library as part of an ongoing effort to deal with the future of the institution, and as part of the larger national effort to figure out the sustainable university. And I think you are right to say that there is an important tension between the existing infrastructure (all of it) and the demands/requirements of the institution's missions (all of them), which overlap but don't exactly coincide. Some of the non-overlap is because the missions have changed over time, or because the ways that the missions are carried out have changed over time, or because the infrastructure needed to carry out the missions have changed over time.

For instance, part of the change in mission has been an effort to include those students who are (f'r'ex) wheelchair-bound; the infrastructure of the mid-century has had to be changed to accommodate that. Or: computer networking has become an essential tool of research and teaching, and the infrastructure has had to be brought into existence to accommodate that. Or: the mission has come to include some aspects of a comfortable student life for which the infrastructure was not designed. Uswusf. And there certainly is an instinct to add on to the infrastructure, rather than repurpose; there is always a good deal of repurposing as well, but it's at risk of controversy, and not as easy to raise money for. But the more money raised, the more money is needed, and costs continue to go up… certainly my reaction to the plan is to complain that if they want more space for groups studying and using computers, put them in the computer lab or the student center; I'm sure the people using those spaces would disagree.

I maintain the position that this plan is a bad one for the institution. I think that a good collection—even a mediocre collection—has a lot of value, and that whittling it down to a tiny collection will have substantial consequences. (Digression: if academic libraries generally take up this course, it will be very bad for academic publishing, which will be very bad for junior faculty, which will be very bad for some other stuff, but I'm not sure how responsible our institution is for a hypothetical trend) I think that a lot of those consequences will be invisible, and a lot more will be difficult to connect to the library, but they will be there nonetheless. Of course, other resources around the institution presumably feel the same way. And they are probably right. Cutting IT by half, or cutting ResLife by half, or cutting the athletics department by half would have substantial negative consequences as well. And the answer cannot be to keep everything, add everything, and just keep biggering and biggering and biggering.

That's not to give up on my position. I feel that the libraries and their collections are very closely tied to the essential missions of universities. I think the conservation is important in itself; I think that for another generation or more, the connection to printed books will be important for students; I think that even when the information in the books is available digitally, the lack of bound copies can create extra barriers. Of course, I also like books, and furthermore I happen to work in the library, pecifically in circulation, so the circulation of printed books is central to my income, so my placing such things at the center of the larger institution's mission should be taken with a grain of proverbial.


I'm composing a longer reply via email to your email to me, so you can expect to see that...um, eventually, when I finish it, but for now I just want to address this point: "it will be very bad for academic publishing, which will be very bad for junior faculty..."

Weeding the collection will not, actually, be bad for academic publishing; if anything, it will be good for academic publishing: freeing up shelf space to house new books. Academic (monograph) publishing, however, has already been dealt a near-death-blow by the Serials Crisis: such a large portion of library acquisitions budgets has been diverted from books to journals that academic publishers are falling right and left. Anecdata: MPOW's serials budget is on the order of 8-10 times that of our monograph budget. And we're not even out of shelf space yet.

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