‘Tis the season for weeding woes, it seems.
A Kind Reader sent in this article from Slate about moving books out of college libraries that makes some good points and at least one weird one.
Part of it is about a brouhaha at Colby College, where the librarians moved 170,000 books out of the library and into offsite storage, leaving about 165,000 books. In the planning process, “no faculty input was sought or welcomed.”
Understandably, people are upset, and if you follow the links in the article to the Colby College newspaper you can see the only person defending this is the library director. The faculty and students are all protesting.
Part of the protest should definitely be about the process. If you’re going to do something that has a major impact on the faculty and students, talking with them about it is probably a good idea.
A couple of months ago, a branch library at the University of Pennsylvania wanted to move its book collections offsite. After protests from the faculty and students, most of the collection was kept, and they decided to build a smaller classroom than planned to accommodate the change.
It doesn’t seem like that’s a possibility at Colby, because part of the lost space is already taken up by administrative offices, including the Center for the Arts and Humanities, which isn’t a library department, but which is taking up library space that used to belong to books.
Besides the process, the mere fact of removing half the collection raised protest. One student complained that if the books were outdated, then why not move them out and replace them with newer books.
People like books, people like to browse, etc.
But Colby might be an exception, since most library renovations aren’t driving out more than half of their libraries’ print collections.
The Slate article goes further than reasonable objections, though. Why must books be saved, even old or useless ones?
“We must also save the stacks for another, more urgent reason altogether: Books, simply as props that happen also to be quite useful if you open them up, are the best—perhaps the only—bastions of contemplative intellectual space in the world.”
This one probably resonates with a lot of academics and book lovers. Books do furnish a room, after all. But it’s the kind of sentiment impossible for anyone who actually runs a library. Who can say if the books as props happen to be quite useful? Books always have to go, and someone has to make tough decisions.
It’s one thing to protest moving out half the collection partly to house non-library administrative units, but the “books as props” argument seems to imply that books as physical objects in themselves have some academic value, to create a “bastion of contemplative intellectual space,” because nobody can contemplate intellectually while sitting in a cafe or on a college green.
Even the student at Colby argues that libraries are for books, and if more study space is necessary, people can study in other buildings.
One doesn’t have to be a cold, heartless administrative bean counter to reply that library space also has value, particularly new library space. For every book as prop in the library, something actually useful has to go.
That something might be non-library units. It might also be study space, classrooms, anything that isn’t books, but something has to give. Just because Colby seems to have made a mess of things doesn’t mean the books as props argument goes very far.
Let’s pretend the option was to build more accessible book space. How effective would it be to lobby for more book space? To really keep most of their books handy, libraries need to expand over time, but nobody wants to pay for it. Are they just being cheap?
Here’s an estimate for the cost per square foot of building a library in the U.S. in 2013. The minimum cost was $145.71.
At Demco, I priced a 78” high, 6 shelf unit of single-faced steel cantilever library shelving at $399.99. That’s a popular kind of shelving. That was 3’ wide, so a square foot of it would be about $133.33.
Based on those two estimates, it would cost $279.04 to build a square foot of a library covered in shelves. At roughly 10 books per shelf foot, that would let us put 60 books per square foot.
Except that bookshelves need about three feet in front of them to be truly accessible. So that’s 279.04 plus three more square feet of just space in front of the books. That brings us to $716.17.
If my math is holding out, and I’m not sure it is, that would mean that to build new accessible space for books would average about $11.93 per book.
Let’s say that instead of shipping out books to make room for lesser things, a college wanted to make space for 170,000 books as props. That cost would be about $2,029,148.
If there’s a college anywhere in the country that would be willing to spend that kind of money just to keep books around regardless of their usefulness, you should apply to work at that library immediately. They’ve got money to burn, so they might even burn some on you.