No Room for Books

U. of Denver's plan to remove 80 percent of volumes from its library upsets some professors and renews debate over how best to store and share information.
April 27, 2011

While university libraries have taken on numerous functions over the years, such as serving as places for students to study, meet with others, and interact with technology, one component that has always been central to their mission has been housing books.

But plans at the University of Denver to permanently move four-fifths of the Penrose Library’s holdings to an off-campus storage facility and renovate the building into an “Academic Commons,” with more seating, group space, and technological capacity, could make the university a flashpoint in the debate about whether the traditional function of storing books needs to happen on campus.

“We are not alone in this trend of increasing central campus space for study, services and student learning and decreasing central campus space for legacy collections,” said Nancy Allen, dean and director of Penrose Library, in an e-mail statement.

The proposed change has raised the ire of some arts, humanities, and social science professors who say that, while impressive, technology hasn’t yet replaced a good old-fashioned trip through the stacks. They argue that the administration dropped the changes in their laps without consulting them and that it will harm their main mode of research.

“You would never ask a scientist to get rid of his or her laboratory,” said Annabeth Headrick, an art history professor. “But that’s exactly what’s being done to us.”

The library's renovation, which is slated to cost $32 million and take 18 months, will radically transform the space to try to make it more welcoming for students to study or meet in. The project will also remove asbestos and open up the interior to more light.

During the renovation, the university plans to house the library’s 1.1 million books, as well as government documents, journals, microfiche, and CDs, in the Hampden Center, a 51,500-square-foot storage facility in southwest Denver, about 10 miles from campus.

Once the renovations are complete, the university will bring back some books and leave others at the storage facility. The original plans -- which did not cause alarm -- called for 80 percent of the materials to return to the renovated library, leaving behind seldom-accessed journals and those with digital replacements, government documents, and little-used books.

But the university announced to faculty members last week that the renovated library would now only hold 20 percent of its current collection, much to the surprise of professors.

In an e-mail, Allen said the books that will return to the library after renovation "will comprise a teaching collection carefully built with the input of faculty, especially those in the social sciences and humanities who depend in both teaching and research on monographs as the key form of scholarly communication." She said the rest of the collections would remain in the Hampden Center and be deliverable within two or three hours of a request.

A spokeswoman for the university said the chancellor and Board of Trustees made the decision to increase the percentage of stored material to allow for greater flexibility in the use of the library's space over time.

While many faculty members agree that the library needs to be renovated, they say administrators left them out of the process and that the provost presented the decision to them last week as a “done deal.”

“We should have been presented with the plan, asked to have a discussion and weigh in on our feelings about it before anything was finalized,” said Dean Saitta, chairman of the anthropology department and president of Denver's chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Denver's spokeswoman said the university's administration consulted with the faculty in formal and informal ways throughout the process.

A similar plan at Syracuse University in 2009, in which low-use texts would have been housed in a facility 250 miles from campus, faced steep opposition from faculty members and students, who showed up in droves to protest the change. Suzanne E. Thorin, dean of the library at Syracuse, said the university now plans to build a new storage facility near campus, pending approval from the Board of Trustees in May.

The reaction by Denver faculty has been more muted, with fewer faculty members speaking up. Headrick said many faculty who wouldn’t be directly affected by the change have been reluctant to support those who would.

Faculty members who have objected say that, while database research is important to modern-day academics, Denver researchers will invariably lose out on serendipitous discovery that comes with perusing a library’s stacks. “I know it’s kind of a touchy-feely argument, and I wish I had documented my own experience to prove it,” Headrick said. “But it’s very, very common in a lot of the social sciences. I’ll leave with five other books that I find while looking.”

The library is slated to be finished by December 2012. Allen said the university will continually monitor the use of books to determine which should remain on campus and which should be sent to the storage facility.


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