Growing trend: warehoused libraries

In spite of the fact that studies show students prefer print for serious academic reading, colleges and universities continue emptying the stacks, storing books off site, and moving towards bookless libraries.

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Miller Library, Colby College, Waterville, ME

In a Slate.com article titled “College libraries should keep their books in the stacks“, education columnist  addresses this alarming trend. 

The articles profiles Miller Library at Colby College in Maine which recently moved 170,000 of its books to storage, to make room for ‘sumptuous new administrative offices’. This transition is “but one example of a widespread move to re-appropriate library space in the age of digitization,” she said.

“There’s one wholly unsentimental reason the stacks are both vital and irreplaceable, and that brings us back to Colby’s decision to replace theirs with a gleaming shrine to the corporate bottom line. As more of the books disappear from college libraries, the people in charge of funding those libraries will be more tempted to co-opt that space for events that bring in revenue, or entice students for the wrong reasons: food courts. Gaming lounges. I expect rock-climbing walls soon. Unless administrators make a protracted effort to preserve the contemplative and studious feeling, that feeling will disappear altogether, and the whatever-brary will become just another Jamba Juice.”

What do Colby College students have to say about their new dumbed-down library? Sorry, your new library still sucks is the title of an editorial in The Colby Echo, student newspaper since 1877, and pretty much capsulizes strong student dislike.

“…the dismantling of Miller (library) is a liberal arts tragedy,” states Nick Merrill, editor. “Aside from the lack of faculty consultation, the most disquieting aspect of the timeline is how fast it transpires. There’s a reason why students and teachers are so jarred; we were given short notice and expected to quickly adapt. Over the course of this year, it’s become clear that students dislike Colby’s lack of administrative transparency. Like most recent instances of new policy, the library renovation came as a shock.”

The swift progression of the library’s extreme makeover, planned and carried out behind closed doors, echoes the story of library deconstruction in so many other colleges, as well as public libraries. Check out what’s happening in public libraries in my post: “Extreme weeding leaves half empty shelves”.

Not only are the students unhappy, a group of 76 Colby faculty members have petitioned administrators to halt the renovation. In an open letter from the faculty concerning the Colby College library), they  paint an even grimmer picture of the outcome.

“Dear Members of the Colby Community: We the undersigned faculty, writing from all academic divisions, vigorously oppose the ongoing Miller library renovations at Colby.

The renovations have been hurried, poorly thought-out, damaging to the mission of the College and conducted with inadequate faculty input. Books have disappeared into storage, administrative offices have appeared or will arise where stacks of books once stood*, the reference area has been purged and the central floor looks like a massive waiting room, designed for students and other patrons to look at each other in between Google searches rather than engage in thoughtful contemplation and scholarship.”

Administrators obviously know their end game will not be well received or it wouldn’t need to be carried out like some covert operation. Students and patrons, the people who libraries are created for, have been betrayed by people who hold the public trust.

The browsing of physical books is an integral part of the library experience. This cannot be replaced by online browsing.

But what’s even more at stake here is that our historical records are at risk. Books need to be kept in public view, not warehoused in some remote location. The agenda being promoted is that the books will be better preserved in climate controlled buildings than on library shelves ‘gathering dust’. This ‘gathering of dust’ is a phrase I keep running across in veiled apologies for the clearing of stacks.

Paper is not such a fragile material, a common misconception which I will examine in a future post. For now you can check out 10 of the Oldest Known Surviving Books in the World.

We need to demand accountability on the part of library administrators who have prioritized ‘sumptuous new administrative offices’ and social networking spaces over having real books available.

Books are made to be read! Why are they being buried?


This article is part of a Library in Crisis series I am currently working on. Please follow my blog for future postings. I will be covering a wide range of  topics including:

    • the massive purging of library books
    • bookless libraries
    • the battle between physical vs. digital books
    • how libraries are working to create models for the future.