Room of their Own

Interesting piece in the Chron about how “Library Renovation Leads to Soul Searching at Cal Poly.” A lot of libraries are looking for ways to add more space for students to do the multiple things they want to do in libraries – study, socialize, write papers, do homework, daydream, and even occasionally use library materials. One way to do that is to build a bigger library. Another, more practical way is to renovate the space you have and pare down the print collections. And until an addition is built, that’s what the director at Cal Poly is doing.

The project, now under way, will add an attractive glass entrance and space for computer rooms, study areas, classrooms, and socializing to a dull 1960s box.

But the renovation and addition — which is smaller than originally planned — may leave less space for books, journals, and other printed materials. That has some campus librarians and professors wondering if the library has forgotten its core mission.

Because this change has led “the library to hastily discard tens of thousands of little-used items and to send hundreds of thousands of books to a storage facility at which they will be inaccessible to library patrons” – people are debating the purpose of the library. Is it a collection or is it a place for things to happen?

It’s too bad the faculty and library staff weren’t involved in the decision, or at least well informed of the tradeoffs, so that they bought into this in advance. Any “weeding” project can become a PR nightmare without a lot of advance process work with all the stakeholders.

But to my mind, we can’t all save everything. Storing print runs of JSTOR titles just in case seems to me to be a poor use of expensive space if your students have nowhere to study in the library. Decisions about how little-used but unique materials should be retained need to be wider than any one institution. In Minnesota, we have a shared storage facility open to all libraries in the state, the Minnesota Library Access Center. It’s an amazing place if you ever have a chance to tour it. It’s easy and quick to get things delivered from the “cave” – and though you can’t just bump into them by browsing, most undergraduates will have a better browsing experience with a more select and well-tempered collection than a huge one full of unique and little-used items. MLAC gives us enlightened Minnesotans (aren’t you jealous?) the option of jointly retaining materials that have value – but that at the moment have less value to our students than a library where there’s room for them, too.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

4 thoughts on “Room of their Own

  1. Now that you mention it I am jealous. We’ve been talking about some sort of joint facility in Pennsylvania for years – with nothing to show for it. The next time someone brings it up I’ll them them to go figure out how MLAC did it.

  2. It is a hard decision, but ultimately you need to adapt your library to the needs of the patrons. College students use the library to go on the Internet, print a report, have a quiet place to study or meet with a group. There are those that come there to study, but a smaller collection of specific books would probably be better for this group. There is nothing more frustrating than going through 20 American history books to find that none of them have exactly what you need, cutting this collection down may actually be more valuable to the patrons of the library. This may also give the library an option of selling these books to patrons; the money raised from a book sale can be used towards the renovation.

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