Last week, Vermont State University announced plans for an “all-digital” academic library when the new institution, formed from the consolidation of three colleges, officially launches on July 1.
“We listened to our students as we made this decision,” the emailed statement from Parwinder Grewal, the first president of Vermont State University, said. “What we heard was that they need and want access to library resources where they are, whether on or off campus.”
Of course, “listening to students” first requires asking them questions, and the mechanism through which those questions are asked can skew the results. A statement on the university website said that the decision was data-driven. Students had been invited to weigh in via an email that included a link to the online survey. Five hundred of the approximately 5,000 students across the three soon-to-be-merged institutions responded, and those students indicated, “We want information as quickly as possible, and digital is better,” according to Grewal.
But not all students are inclined to click on yet another online survey, especially those who are not glued to their devices. Some may favor, for example, reading a print book outside surrounded by the Northeast Kingdom’s live audio of spring peepers. Asked whether the institution’s survey might have overrepresented students who are partial to living life online, Grewal had this to say:
“That is absolutely correct,” Grewal said. “The survey was not the only factor in this decision-making … We are mandated by the Legislature to reduce our expenses by $5 million every year. We are $25 million in deficit. That is another factor.” Once the digital library is built, the university expects to save approximately $500,000 per year, Grewal said.
In planning for the new library, the financially challenged institution seeks to forge a path that balances cost with quality, while also reaching a wider swath of the state’s rural residents. But its botched announcement, in which “all-digital” is a misnomer, failed to recognize students’ and professors’ emotional attachment to print books. Since the announcement, the union faculty and staff voted no confidence in the state college chancellor, Grewal and others in leadership earlier this week, according to WCAX.
“We believe that we were not being listened to, that this was grounded in bad data and we no longer had confidence or faith in the leadership of the president,” Linda Olsen of the Vermont State Colleges faculty union told WCAX.
A (Brief) Pre-History of Vermont State University
Technically, Vermont State University does not yet exist. On July 1, three financially challenged public colleges and universities—Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College—scattered across 100 miles in Vermont will merge to form Vermont State University. At that point, Grewal, who is currently the president of each of the three institutions involved in the merger, will become the first president of the merged university.
It was created in the wake of enrollment declines, state underfunding and structural deficits that created a crisis in the Vermont State College system, as Inside Higher Ed reported last August. Rather than closing campuses, as a former system chancellor proposed, the statewide hybrid institution aims to cut costs and build long-term legislative backing. Still, many of the underlying challenges that spurred the transformation remain.
As part of the transition, the university has planned for an “all-digital” academic library, which it announced in a Feb. 7 email to its community. The overall tone of the email statement was positive, with due solemnity upon mentioning that a “small number” of library staff positions would be eliminated.
“Our digital library will provide students and faculty with 24/7/365 universal access to information, resources and services with unlimited access to texts, scholarly articles, databases and more,” the statement said.
But the next day, a local news headline blared, “Vermont State University to Close Libraries, Downgrade Sports Programs.” The article detailed the university’s community members’ swift rebukes, including from a half dozen students upset about the loss of print books.
By the end of the week, Grewal issued another statement titled, “Apology and Clarification on Athletics and Libraries.” In it, he apologized for how the institution had shared the news with its community and clarified that the libraries were not closing.
When those outside Vermont think of the state, many conjure images of maple syrup, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and skiing. But the Green Mountain State is also known as among those with the lowest state support for higher education per full-time student. It is also struggling with an opioid epidemic that remains on an alarming upward trajectory. The flagship University of Vermont has a strong national reputation, but three out of four students there hail from out of state. That means that a critical mass of Vermonters seeking higher education are betting big on the precarious Vermont State University.
Exaggerated Rumors of All-Digital Libraries
Vermont State is not the first to find itself debunking falsehoods about the absence of a physical library. Articles with titles such as “Academic Libraries Without Print” may perpetuate fear that some institutions seek to reduce print to zero. But this and other articles focus on library services “centered on” e-resources but not to the exclusion of print.
Some, including sources consulted for this story, also recalled rumors that the University of California, Merced, had launched in 1995 with all-digital library. But Juan Meza, professor of applied mathematics and former dean at UC Merced and director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Mathematical Sciences, corrected that myth—the institution has always had a physical library that includes print books.
Still, UC Merced sought to create a model for a 21st-century academic research library. That included asking, among other questions, “Should the new research library have books or truly be an online operation?” Donald Barclay, former deputy university librarian at UC Merced, wrote in a paper about the situation. The question was timely, given that the institution’s founding coincided with the spread of what was then called the information superhighway. Also, the 1997 launch of the California Digital Library, which negotiated UC’s systemwide licenses for electronic information resources, was set to provide access to a then mind-boggling number of e-resources, according to Barclay.
Now, Vermont State, on top of its financial crisis, is managing a PR headache—partly of its own making—for dubbing its initiative “all-digital.” “Digital first” might have been more appropriate, as the institution plans to center digital resources in its physical libraries, while providing some access—albeit limited—to print materials.
“Library services and the physical library spaces are not going away,” a statement on the university’s website said, contradicting the “all-digital” sentiment in the original message. The statement added that all the institution’s campuses will still have in-person, credentialed librarians. In addition, community members will have access to professional research librarians via “24/7 chat coverage,” special collections, reserve resources and interlibrary loans. The physical space would also provide more places for students to gather to study, use computers and printers, and access class materials, according to the statement.
“We will continue to keep a small number of books in each library,” Grewal told Inside Higher Ed, adding that the institution is now working with faculty members to determine which and how many books to keep. “If, based on our data, we were thinking we’d retain 7,000 [print] volumes out of 100,000” on a branch campus, “now we may end up with 45,000,” depending on how conversations with the faculty unfold.
A Physical-Digital Library Continuum
Academic libraries rarely (if ever) exist in a binary state. Rather, as library stewards look to be prudent with space and resources, most land somewhere on a physical-digital library continuum. Some high-use, print-only materials may be on-site for easy access. Many research journals and ebooks may be accessed digitally. Libraries also work collaboratively, such as through interlibrary loan, to maximize access to resources.
“There’s merit in print, and there’s merit in digital,” said Geneva Henry, dean of libraries and academic innovation at George Washington University, adding that some resources are available in only one of these formats. “Will [Vermont’s plan] realize a cost savings? It’s complicated, because it still costs money to have librarians to manage the invisible stuff.”
Other librarians agreed that extending a library’s resources and services to the internet is not as simple as, for example, adding a chat bot to the library’s webpage.
“A lot of people do a lot of work under the hood that [digital library patrons] are probably not even aware of,” said Barbara Fister, professor emeritus in library at Gustavus Adolphus College and a librarian blogger. For example, they negotiate digital licenses and ensure that databases are interoperable, among other complex tasks. “The effort is to make the labor seem invisible, but sometimes invisible labor has a real cost.”
Also, interlibrary loan restricts digital access to print books. “You can get only about a chapter” that way, said Robin Delaloye, George Washington associate dean for student success and communication. “Most of the time, that’s not a substitute for the entire print book.”
Also, some believe that most books are available as ebooks, given their availability on sellers like Amazon. But libraries cannot license, for example, Kindle books, Delaloye said. In such cases, a library patron may need to request a physical book.
“There are still plenty of books flying around,” Henry said.
Vermont State leaders are not so sure. The numbers of checked-out physical books and resources from their libraries in the last five years has declined steeply—from approximately 22,000 out of the 330,000 volumes to 6,000, according to Grewal.
“We have spent quite a lot of time thinking through this,” Grewal said. “If our students need physical or specialized materials, we will request them.” Grewal acknowledged that they cannot predict that demand or its associated costs.
Despite Grewal’s frank talk about the institution’s dire financial problems, he is a glass-half-full kind of guy. In his view, the library’s digital-first initiative offers an opportunity to expand—not contract—the university’s reach. Vermonters are highly dispersed, as more than four out of five of its residents live in rural areas or small cities. The new institution has prioritized serving all its residents, including those with barriers to showing up on campus. Its academic model will share academic programs across campuses, reduce dependence on physical facilities and rely heavily on hybrid forms of learning.
“We’re preparing to serve working professionals who cannot get to the library,” Grewal said. “This is a huge opportunity to build a modern university that addresses the needs of modern folks and the workforce.”
Besides, he suggests, context matters.
“We don’t do that much research,” Grewal said. “We don’t even have a single Ph.D. program. The master’s programs are also professional. We may not have some [physical] resources currently. These are underfunded small colleges … that were neglected for many, many years.”
Paper Books’ Enduring Appeal
Many see books as totems, according to Fister.
“You sometimes get an overreaction where somebody’s like, ‘No, you can’t remove any books from the library!’” Fister said, adding that library spaces and collections often evolve over time for practical reasons. “If you include people in the discussions early, then you won’t make a mistake where people react in a very emotional way to a pronouncement.”
That said, students may be drawn to print books beyond the moments they spend reading them. For example, George Washington students have shared with Delaloye that they appreciate being able to study near books.
“It makes them feel more studious and more ready to work,” Delaloye said, adding that she takes this intel into account when moving books or furniture in the library. Also, when the library overflows with students who are studying during midterm and final-exam weeks, the administration has opened overflow study areas in the student center. But that has not worked, as the students want to study near books in the library, Henry said.
“They go home to sleep or to be distracted. They go to the student center to eat or socialize,” Delaloye said. “But the library is their protected, quiet, dedicated workplace.”
Meza, of UC Merced, finds digital journals convenient for his research. But a physical library with print books offers an academic true north.
“I love libraries,” Meza said, adding that he particularly enjoys seeing students at work there. “The physical touch of a book is hard to replace.”
Many consulted for this article spoke of the pleasure of wandering through libraries’ stacks, including being drawn to a book based on the color of its spine, font used or size and texture of the binding. That presents a challenge for modern librarians.
“How do we recreate a [digital] environment that enables people to browse in a serendipitous way?” Henry asked. “We have not replicated the physical library world, and there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Grewal told Inside Higher Ed that he has heard his community’s expression of books’ emotional appeal. “We will have at least a floor that will look like a proper library” in each physical library, Grewal said. “We will keep the library’s look, feel and ambience.”
Whatever the final numbers, starting this summer, Vermont State students, faculty and staff at can expect a severely pared-down collection of print resources in their libraries.
“But the nature of higher education is that those people will move on,” Steven Bell, associate university librarian at Temple University, said. “Two or four years from now, there’ll be a completely new generation of students, and they might find that having an all-digital library is the norm.”