Cady Sharp Kuzmich, Editor-in-Chief
SUNY Oneonta has recently received an $8 million state loan that it plans to allocate toward “future-proofing” Milne Library.
Although Library Director Charles O’Bryan says this project has been in the works for over two years, he explained plans are still in preliminary stages. The general idea is to weed the physical book collection in order to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and to make room for services that exist elsewhere on campus. The exact percent of the collection that will be discarded has not been officially released. Mr. O’Bryan explained, “No firm numbers have been established for weeding the collection or assigning square footage for office/department space. ADA standards for shelving will be considered a priority for the project.”
Nancy Cannon, of SUNY Oneonta’s technology department, explains the implications of the ADA requirements, saying, “Most, though not all, of the second and third floor stacks are narrower than the required 36 inch separation ADA requirement. When Congress originally passed the law, existing facilities were “grandfathered” from an immediate requirement to meet the new standards until such time as those facilities would undergo renovation in the future. With the approaching renovations, the time for ADA compliance is approaching. It was always inevitable that someday compliance would be necessary.”
While there are feelings of uncertainty regarding the magnitude of the project, students and faculty do not take issue with the college’s plan to comply with ADA requirements, but are concerned, instead, with other aspects of the project including the introduction of outside services into the library and trends toward digitization.
The Chair of the College Library Committee Jerome Blechman shared his thoughts on the e-book versus print debate, saying, “Printed books are a holdover from that pre-electronic and pre-Internet age. Just as we no longer use papyrus scrolls to record information, I believe that printed books will gradually become historical artifacts. The electronic journals deliver more information more easily to more people than the old printed journals ever did. It will happen with e-books or their equivalent in whatever form is best and most convenient for people to use.”
Head of Library Technologies Andrew Perry echoed Blechman, saying “Yes, I believe print is a 15th century technology that is rapidly being replaced by the digital in the 21st century. The replacement of print journals started in earnest in the late 90s. Today that process is complete. Milne has only around 100 print subscriptions and 78,000 e-journals. It doesn’t matter how students feel about e-books. The same transition will happen with books that has already happened with journals. It is inevitable. My advice to students is to master this technology as you have done very successfully with many other new technologies. You can’t stop it. So you might as well embrace it and own it. Today I heard from a publisher who said that libraries in Australia have largely abandoned print due to a federal government mandate. One way or another print will be disappearing before long for new publishing. But a lot of the older books are not yet digital and a hybrid collection that is both print and digital will be around for many years to come.”
Uncertainty Surrounding the Magnitude of the Project:
According to a memo composed by the Library Weeding Task Force this month, their “rough and preliminary estimate” of the number of volumes that will be removed is approximately 75,000 volumes, nearly a quarter of the circulating collection of the second and third floors.
O’Bryan emphasized that this number is only an estimate. He said, “We will have a much better idea about how to handle items that have never circulated in our collection once we have undertaken and completed a program evaluation utilizing an independent library consultant attached to our upcoming building project.”
Associate Librarian and Chair of the Milne Library Weeding Task Force Michelle Hendley explained, “The Milne Library Weeding Task Force was established for two reasons: first, it is the Task Force’s understanding that the library’s shelving will have to be compliant with the American Disabilities Act once the project is complete and second, that the relocation of CADE and SDS to the library will likely result in the loss of shelf space.” She explained how the book culling process will be undertaken, saying, “The library’s bibliographers will recommend books for removal from the collection in a professional manner and will seek the input of the faculty and other interested campus constituents to review the list of books recommended for deselection.”
Any books that are discarded cannot be donated, and are recycled, since the books are state property, according to Student Association President Kai Malik.
It’s routine for libraries to discard books, especially books that are outdated. Professors and students know and accept this. Since 2002, the library has added 89,824 items and discarded 115,531 items, according to O’Bryan. In that time, the lowest number of books discarded was 2,616 while the highest number of items discarded topped off at 33,734. O’Bryan noted the majority of discarded books were periodicals replaced by electronic versions, not reference books.
This latest plan, could potentially double that previous weeding record. Without a firm number, however, it’s difficult to have an open and frank discussion.
Perry summed up future plans for Milne, saying, in the “next four years the empty compact shelving will need to house materials that need to be housed temporarily while the second and third floors are being gutted and renovated.” He added, “The extra capacity will be needed to house collections that no longer will fit into the second and third floors after these areas are redesigned to meet ADA requirements.”
During a student focus group, a moderator told students an intensive weed was simply a rumor, and explained it isn’t feasible considering the size of our library staff. However, in previous weedings, the library has hired extra staff for the task. The Library Weeding Task Force memo reads, “For the last weeding project, the library hired extra personnel to help with the moving of the books and more in the deselection process.”
Blechman explained that the proposed weeding will likely be more intensive than previous years, citing a large number of books that are outdated and rarely or never circulated. He explained, “Unless they have historical significance, allowing old or incorrect information to be representative of our best and most accurate thinking is a bad choice for an institution of higher learning. The librarians have a carefully devised method for weeding. The method allows the faculty to oversee which books are removed and which are kept, based on our expertise and judgement.”
The Library Weeding Task Force memo also explains that there are over 1,000 empty shelves in the sub-basement of the library that could potentially hold up to 45,000 books. When storage shelves are taken into account, 52,000 books could be relocated to the empty basement shelves. “The college made a substantial investment in the manual compact shelving that was installed two years ago” and the Task Force believes “the use of the shelving should be maximized.” Todd Foreman, Vice President of Finance and Administration said, “The library requested and we purchased compact shelving which allows for much more efficient storing of books. While compact shelving is not ideal, it does allow us to hold more books than we otherwise could with traditional shelving. It’s an unfortunate fact that students do not pull books off the shelves at the same rates that they used to.”
Student Response to the Plan in its Initial Stages:
Malik thinks the transition to e-books is “inevitable.” Malik works at the library and says she knows “for a fact that the majority of the students don’t utilize the services offered by the library because they can easily find the information online.”
SUNY Oneonta junior Psychology major Sarah Cottone said, “I don’t think the library is outdated. It’s a library, so I don’t really hold its aesthetics to any modern-techno standards or anything. The computers, however, may be new and beautiful, but the software update to Windows 8 is absolutely awful. It’s not outdated by year, but it is outdated by its ability to perform what people value most with technology: speed.”
Cottone described the idea of transitioning to e-books as “terrifying.”
Commenting on student involvement in the decision-making process, she said, “It would have been nice [to get] this kind of information through the campus e-mail, or [through] an opinion survey on MyOneonta.” Cottone added, “I wasn’t invited to sit in on the library committee or student focus group.”
SUNY Oneonta senior English major Kelly Spencer said, “I think a more hands-on approach would prove to be beneficial in keeping students aware.” Spencer said that she was invited to sit in on a student focus group, “but it was by no initiative of faculty. A friend and fellow student asked me to participate.”
When asked how she felt about the proposed plans for Milne, Spencer said, “I don’t think the library needs to remove any of its print inventory in order to provide more student services. I think the focus should be on improving the current services they offer, such as the tech office or the library website.”
Faculty Perspective: Uncertainty Surrounding the Magnitude of the Proposed Weeding and Concern for the Future of Research at SUNY Oneonta.
Dr. Jonathon Sadow of the English Department shared his perspective on the proposed changes to the library with The State Times. Dr. Sadow said he was “Extremely wary of any plan that is going to seriously affect the integrity of the collection. If anything, we have gaps that need to be filled, and most people don’t want to read long monographs on our e-book interface; both faculty and students want physical books!”
He continued, saying, “That being said, all libraries do some book culling in order to make room for new books, and I think it can be done responsibly if it is transparently coordinated with faculty members. That means making sure that a faculty member has made sure that a book is unlikely to be useful, not just getting rid of a book because it hasn’t been taken out in a while.”
When asked how he felt about the idea of removing book space to make room for more services within the library, Dr. Sadow said, “I am completely against the idea that books should be replaced in order to make room for more services in the library. The need for various services may exist, but they can be [housed] elsewhere.”
Milne Library’s 2014 Vision Statement explains that the “Academic Success Center” will “incorporate Student Disabilities Services (SDS) and the Center for Academic Development and Enrichment (CADE) as two cornerstones.” CADE already has space designated for tutoring services in Alumni Hall. Students can also take advantage of CADE’s services on the first floor of the library.
Dr. Sadow commented on what he called a “disturbing” national trend, “where various sectors of universities have their possessive eye on library space,” but explained, “It takes a long time to build a collection for a good research library, and torpedoing it in the name of doing something else is a very destructive idea.”
Dr. Sadow believes, “It will weaken us as at a time when we should be building a reputation as a university where both students and faculty do serious research.”
Dr. Mette Harder of SUNY Oneonta’s history department shared Dr. Sadow’s reservations. Dr. Harder was invited to sit on the Library Steering Committee as a representative of the School of the Social Science in September 2014. She says her department has been working closely with the library staff to protect the collection from future weeding. She said “We are very concerned about the possibility of a reduction in our collections, which are already insubstantial compared to those of other institutions of SUNY Oneonta’s size and academic status, and which are crucial for our students’ everyday course work and research.”
Dr. Harder continued, saying, “Already our students have to rely disproportionally on Interlibrary Loan for their research needs. This is tedious for them, expensive for the library, and embarrassing for the college. While we don’t oppose weeding as part of maintaining an up-to-date collection, we want to make sure that it is done in the best interest of our students’ research and scholarship: that means in order to renew the collection with the latest scholarship in the field and not to randomly make space for other facilities.”
Dr. Harder commented on the uncertainty surrounding the magnitude of the upcoming weed, saying “There seems to be uncertainty amongst students, staff and faculty regarding this question, causing both students and faculty in our department great anxiety regarding the future of research, teaching and scholarship on this campus.”
She noted, “I have seen an Issue Paper [published in October 2014] by the Library Director, Charles O’Bryan, which announces ‘a 20-40 percent reduction in our physical collections once the weeding plan is implemented and completed.’ The same paper also envisions that there ‘will be some disruption of the monographic (paper) collection during the incorporation of new services.’” Dr. Harder said, “This greatly worries me as our students and faculty already experienced considerable disruption of access to our History collection during last year’s renovation of Milne Library, when we could not access the third floor during the summer.” Dr. Harder tried to contextualize this disruption for students and faculty in other areas of study, saying, “To not access the books in our field is, for a History student or faculty member, the equivalent of being locked out of one’s lab or studio for someone in the sciences or the arts.”
Regarding the proposed plan to transform the library into an “Academic Success Center” with more student services, Dr. Harder said, “I continue to have reservations in regard to the move of so many important services into the library.” She noted, “With careful planning, it might be possible for more people and offices to share space with students and books; however, this cannot be at the cost of the ‘quality collections’ and ‘inviting and comfortable space for intellectual exchange and cultural enrichment’ that are part of Milne Library’s Vision Statement.”
Dr. Harder added, “From a historian’s and faculty member’s point of view, I also cannot help but worry that students will stay away from SUNY Oneonta if there is no quality book collection here for their study and research. If we truly value teaching, research and scholarship, we need to back that up with a high-quality, up-to-date collection that meets our students’ twenty-first century research needs.”
Dr. Harder considers Milne’s best resource, the “wonderful librarians who are an asset to students’ and faculty’s work alike, its physical collections, which continue to surprise and delight me, the Alden Room, which holds rare treasures such as an early, eighteenth-century edition of Diderot’s famous Encyclopédie and its fantastic views over Oneonta’s hills.”
In a 2013 survey of 161 students conducted by the history department, one student wrote, “Honestly my ideal library is this one right here. But to be exact, I like that it has a lot of social space and quiet areas.” One question on the survey asked, “What kind of spaces and services do you wish to see more of in our library?” Dr. Harder says, “More books won out at 22 percent.”
When asked how she felt about trends toward digitization, Dr. Harder said, “E-books are great for looking up a quick reference or reading a single or a few pages. They are impossible for the in-depth research and deep reading that is required for historians’ work.” She explained, “I cannot do my job without printed books, and neither can my students.”
Dr. Harder described hearing “many complaints about the lack of printed books, and the rising number of e-books, from students in my courses. My students, overwhelmingly, do not like e-books.” She says, “Our students’ survey on the library confirmed that 61 percent relied on non-electronic resources for their research. According to the survey, students also ‘stressed the usefulness of perusing the stacks’ as opposed to looking at electronic sources. One student responded, “I like to browse through all the books around the one I’m looking for because I usually find relevant texts I wouldn’t have otherwise found.”
A junior faculty member in the humanities shared his thoughts on the subject, saying, “The library should be about books and quiet study space for students and faculty. How can you achieve that by adding more elements?” He continued, “The Library Director and administrators seem to be buying into the latest trends in Library Science in terms of making the place a multi-use space when I wish we would consult the other librarians, faculty and students in an open forum.”
While faculty are technically represented in the Library Committee, one faculty member felt that their role doesn’t seem to hold equal weight relative to some other players. “We have representatives from all departments on that committee but unfortunately it is only advisory and the Library Committee also seems to play second fiddle to another committee heading up the renovation of the library.” He added, “It seems like there is a conflict of interest there and the head of the Library Committee did not seem to like the competing committees or at least that is what I got at the College Senate a month ago. We all feel out of the loop on the renovation. They supposedly will have some sort of open forum, but the big decisions–like whether we cull or not and how much–seem to be a mystery.” He added that he plans to work closely with the library staff during the proposed book culling.
Faculty members are calling to expand the library’s collection rather than dismantle it. The junior faculty member said, “The collection needs expansion. That’s where the money should go. If we didn’t have to use Inter Library Loan so much, then our circulation numbers might be better.”
When asked who initiated the proposed plan to revamp Milne, Jerome Blechman, Chair of the College Libary Committee said, “I am certain that it was not requested by the librarians or faculty and I doubt the students were the source either. It is the job of our administration to propose new ideas, initiate discussion and lead the campus community in implementing those ideas in the form that the consultation produces.”
The State Times asked President Kleniewski where the roots for this transformation lie. President Kleniewski answered, “The original thinking about the Academic Success Center arose five years ago as we were envisioning the future of the campus during the Facilities Master Planning process.” Kleniewski added, “Considerations included making CADE and SDS more physically accessible to students and staff, locating important services in places where students already like to go and making the best use of space by integrating functions rather than having them separated.”
Regarding the plan’s inevitability, Foreman said, “There is a financial commitment to move forward but until the shovels are in the ground so to speak nothing is every final.” He added, “I like to hold a book in my hand. This project won’t obsolete books.”
Drs. Sadow and Harder have accurately and admirably represented concerns that I share about this project. I’m no luddite; I’ve used digital texts for years. But for book-length manuscripts, tasks other than searches are easier with a physical copy and the fundamental research practice of browsing the stacks is impossible without them. Milne’s book collection is already inadequate in many areas. It may be that we are on a path to digital formats completely replacing the printed form. But history is full of examples where predictions based on trends failed to come true.Sure, printing technology came into being centuries ago. But it is still the dominant technology, and discarding its products before they are clearly obsolete is self-destructive.