A Win for the Stacks

Facing faculty uproar, Syracuse library pulls back -- at least for now -- from plans to move thousands of books off campus.
November 13, 2009

The Syracuse University Library system is facing the classic book-lover’s dilemma: too many volumes, not enough shelves. The stacks in the flagship Ernest S. Bird Library are at 98 percent capacity, the on-campus archives are totally full and dozens -- if not hundreds -- of new volumes flood in each day.

Suzanne E. Thorin, dean of libraries, thought she had a solution. Her plan was to ship rarely used or redundant texts 250 miles southeast of campus, to a storage facility in Patterson, N.Y. Readers and researchers would’ve been able to request books before 2 p.m. one business day and receive them the next. Space in Bird would be freed up for new acquisitions, study halls and classrooms.

But that plan went awry Wednesday night when more than 200 faculty and students flocked to first public airing of the issue, a University Senate meeting. Some held signs protesting the proposal (one read "FREE BIRD"). Some spoke against the move on the grounds that library space had been misallocated while others questioned the need to ship the books so far away from campus. Faculty members delivered a petition against the plan signed by more than 100 humanities scholars, whose fields would be hurt more than others by the book relocation.

Now, Thorin and the library staff are reconsidering the options for the university’s 1.1 million books, as well as other library materials. “We have reached our capacity and need to figure out some way to get the space we need,” she said in an interview Thursday. “We haven't signed a contract yet and we're open to more discussion before we make a final decision.”

The Money

The library had settled on Patterson-based Clancy-Cullen Moving and Storage Company in large part because of cost, Thorin said. “A lot of it – isn’t everything – is about money.”

The company could offer the university the facilities it needed at a third of the cost of building its own warehouse. In its first year, off-site shelving would cost $78,000. The total would go up as ever more volumes were transferred, but would still be substantially less expensive for the university than building and maintaining its own storage space.

Thorin framed faculty and student concerns as being about wanting to be able to browse the collection and have easy access to books they know they need or might stumble upon in the stacks. “People in the humanities contend that they would be impaired in their research abilities,” she said. “They want more space on the campus rather than going offsite and I’m sympathetic to that. We’re going to actively look for ways to create more space on the campus, but of course that’s going to cost money.”

Critics, though, think the library is just where money ought to be spent at a research university. “I really believe you find a way to do things if they’re core to the project,” said Deborah Pellow, a professor of anthropology, “and I thought that the project here was intellectual – teaching, learning, exploring.”

The library, said Erin Mackie, chair of the English department, “is under a lot of duress.” More than 20 staff members have been laid off as other academic units have been kept largely intact. “The library is underfunded for the size and kind of university Syracuse is.”

Savanna Kemp, a junior majoring in English and women’s studies, said more than 300 students had joined a Facebook group rallying against the plan. “I’m going to let the library know that there are so many students who want to help the situation, who will do whatever it takes to keep the books on campus or at least close by,” she said. “We’re upset about the plan and we’re going to do all we can so that it doesn’t become a reality.”

The Distance

One factor upsetting many students and faculty alike is Clancy-Cullen’s distant location in Putnam County, a far northern suburb of New York City.

Pellow said it didn’t make sense that the university couldn’t find a way to store the books closer to campus. “When I first heard about this, I thought the books were going to be stored on Erie Boulevard,” just off campus. “When I heard Patterson, New York, I had to Google it,” she said, “and I couldn’t believe it was four hours away from here. There’s got to be somewhere closer.”

One option might be depressed downtown Syracuse, Kemp suggested. “This is a city that’s really dying and that we could do a lot to help,” she said. “If we say we want to engage with our community and be a public good, then we need to do that. If our real goal is to save money, then we should say that.”

Lori Goetsch, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries and dean of libraries at Kansas State University, said Syracuse’s is “not an uncommon story among large academic libraries.” For decades, major libraries have been developing off-site, high density warehouses where books and other materials can be stored efficiently but delivered quickly to readers who need them.

Goetch’s own institution’s offsite shelving facility is at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, 90 miles away from Kansas State’s Manhattan campus. California public institutions send their overflow volumes to shelving facilities at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of California at Berkeley. But the 250 miles between Syracuse and Patterson “is pretty substantial,” she said. “There is often a higher comfort level when the books aren’t too far away.”

Thorin said she had heard that concern and taken it into consideration. “The sentiment from the faculty seems to be that if the facility was just down the street, they’d be able to get their books sooner – maybe there would be a delivery two times a day – and it would all be much more logical.”

The Reason

While a local off-site storage facility may be a viable option, there’s still the question of why so many books need to be removed from a seven-story 1970s building that was built to have a capacity of more than 2 million volumes – half of what the library has today.

The reason, Thorin conceded, is that the library has shifted to become a Learning Commons, a building that houses books, but also has a cafe, study spaces and classrooms. “The library has tripled in use since creating the Learning Commons,” she said. “It is a key place where lots of things happen, but some people see it as a distancing away from the true purpose of a library. I see it as moving closer to that.”

Mackie said she is “taken aback by what looks like an opening up of space for things other than books and then moving books to a faraway off-site location.” She realizes the library is in a transitional phase as technology becomes ever more powerful but still thinks “a library should be a place for books.”

Pellow said she thought the implication of Thorin’s position was that “somehow anybody who objects to removing books either is not on the cutting edge of research or must be a dinosaur.” Neither, she said, is an accurate way of describing her or many others – students especially – who are opposed to removing hundreds of thousands of books from the library.

Pellow worries that Thorin is at the other extreme and wants to see books play a much smaller role in the Syracuse library, pointing to the position Thorin took last week in a debate on the libraries of the future at a technology conference and reported by Inside Higher Ed. “Let’s face it: the library, as a place, is dead,” Thorin said. “Kaput. Finito. And we need to move on to a new concept of what the academic library is."

Thorin said the debate was “on a local front, bad timing” but insisted that she took “an extreme position … for the purposes of the debate” and did not reflect her personal opinion. “I love books – I’m a librarian – I just think we need to use technology, too.”

But Pellow said she and some colleagues thought it was truly what the librarian believes. “Another faculty member looked at what she’s written and it really does seem that she’s anti-book. That’s not what I want to see.”


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