March 20, 2018

Plan To Close University of Pennsylvania Departmental Libraries Meets Resistance


In its search for space to house new classes, the University of Pennsylvania identified a pair of libraries whose collections could be moved offsite to make room. Under the original plan, the Math, Physics, and Astronomy Library in the David Rittenhouse Laboratory would be reduced in size by more than a third, while the Engineering Library in the Towne Building would be eliminated altogether. Collections for both libraries would have been moved offsite to UP’s book repository in New Jersey, meaning that students would have to wait several days to receive books they requested from the facility.

That idea ruffled feathers among students and faculty, particularly in the math department, who use the onsite libraries regularly, especially for print materials that may not be available online. “We think they’ve grossly underestimated how valuable of a resource this is,” mathematics graduate student Brett Frankel told in an interview on March 12. “I have a book checked out right now that is more than 50 years old.” Faculty and students gathered more than a thousand signatures in two petitions to save the two libraries, and it seems the administration is listening—at least on the mathematics front.

“The current plan is to build a smaller classroom than was originally planned,” UP dean of libraries Carton Rogers told Library Journal. “That will allow us to retain more of the collection in the math and physics library.” The extra books that stay on hand will skew toward the site’s mathematics collection, Rogers said, as “that community has voiced the most concern and stands to be the most impacted.”

Rather than the one-third size reduction originally planned, the new proposal sees the math, physics, and astronomy library reduced in size by only 20 percent, leaving it able to retain most of the math collection. In the new plan, Rogers also pointed out that the planned classroom will have a door into the library, allowing it to be used as a quiet study space when classes are not being held. Most physics and astronomy texts will still be moved to the NJ repository, where they will be available on request. The Towne Building’s Engineering Library would still be shuttered at the end of the semester, but staff there will be absorbed into the UP library system elsewhere, said Rogers, who did not anticipate any layoffs as a result of the changes. At this point, no decision about the libraries’ fate is written in stone, said Rogers.

That proposal has yet to go before students, but some have expressed concerns that any changes to the library could negatively impact the image of the departments involved. “When prospective grad students [and faculty] come visit, we can’t truthfully tell them we have a library,” doctoral candidate in mathematics Neel Patel told campus paper The Daily Pennsylvanian.

That attitude from students has been refreshing to see during the process, said Rogers. “One of the great things about this is the passion the students have brought to the discussion,” he said. “This library means something to them, and that’s a great message.”

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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