For residential college libraries, each unto their own

According to former Library communications coordinator Geoffrey Little, the University Library system does not plan to be involved in the management of the residential college libraries. Most colleges leave their library collections decisions up to the residential college master.
According to former Library communications coordinator Geoffrey Little, the University Library system does not plan to be involved in the management of the residential college libraries. Most colleges leave their library collections decisions up to the residential college master. Photo by Sebastian Prokuski.

Sam Schoenburg ’11 is not like most Yale students in at least one way: he enjoys reading books he finds in the residential college libraries.

One of his favorite discoveries was a collection of music by the French composer Maurice Ravel that is housed in the Silliman College library. Schoenburg likes the book so much that he admits to having “borrowed” it.

“But I put it back exactly where I found it,” he added.

When the first 10 residential college libraries were built in the 1930s, at the same time as Sterling Memorial Library, their hundreds of books existed largely for students’ academic benefit. But today — except for occasional students such as Schoenburg — the libraries’ books serve primarily as decorative dust collectors. And while some residential college libraries have librarians to acquire books, others are less active in the maintenance of their libraries.

Though the residential libraries may be a far cry from their heyday, the administration remains unperturbed: the University Library system is not — and does not plan to be — involved in the management of the college libraries, former Library Communications Coordinator Geoffrey Little said in the spring.

About a decade ago, an informal committee of librarians and a few Yale undergraduates sought to establish a closer relationship between the University Library and the residential college libraries, said Judy Schiff, chief research archivist for Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives collection.

“There were a number of meetings, but then it seemed to fade away,” she said. “There were good intentions, but there didn’t seem to be that much interest.”

The residential college libraries are able to expand their collections through a standard annual budget allocated by the University, but the colleges vary widely in terms of the individuals who make acquisitions decisions and the number and type of books procured from year to year, said Traugott Lawler, the master of Ezra Stiles College from 1986 to 1995 and the current librarian for the college.

Most colleges leave the library collections decisions up to the residential college master, who acquires materials based on personal taste or academic curiosity, Schiff said. Branford Master Steven Smith said that during his tenure he has collected a number of books for his college’s library, including the collected works of Abraham Lincoln and the anti-Federalist authors, and a range of books in his academic fields of philosophy and political theory.

George Fayer, a retired lecturer in English and a fellow of Berkeley College, said the Berkeley library’s offerings span academic disciplines but do not duplicate the collections available at larger libraries such as Sterling and Bass.

If there is anything that residential college libraries have in common from year to year, Lawler said, it is the piecemeal and sporadic manner in which they acquire books.

For example, Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld said books that are decommissioned from the central University Library may be acquired by residential college libraries. Often, though, masters or librarians simply fill in perceived holes in the library collections as they notice them.

“When Salinger died, I wanted to read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ again, but the Stiles library didn’t have any of his books,” Lawler said, for example. “Now we have about four of them. I keep perceiving absences like that, trying to use up my annual allotment.”

Lawler said that at one point he looked into the possibility of cataloguing Stiles’ books in Orbis, the University Library’s database, but the Stiles library’s smaller size — about 10,000 books, he estimated — made this a less of priority and was never carried out. Although the books in the Stiles library are classified with call numbers both under the Yale classification system used until the 1970s and under the newer Library of Congress (LC) system, he said, the different systems in Stiles are separated by floors, and the library’s intimacy also makes browsing less of a challenge.

Although college libraries lack the security systems of Bass and Sterling libraries, and there is no way to know whether a book is lost, three college masters and librarians said theft is of little concern.

“Stealing from your residential college library is kind of like stealing from home,” Schottenfeld said. “We’ve always relied on an honor system.”

Karen Fine ’91, a resident of Silliman College, said she remembers her library having a very loose check-out system. Although she does not recall ever taking out a book from her library, she said there was a box in which students could place cards when borrowing books.

Lawler agreed that theft is not a major issue for the Stiles library; he said students are more likely to fail to return books through negligence.

Still, Schottenfeld added that in the past Davenport has designated particularly valuable or rare books in the college’s library to be moved to more secure libraries. One of the most prized possessions of the Davenport library was a collection of Richard Feynman’s physics lectures, said former Davenport resident and library-user Michael Kline ’72. The lectures are now housed in Bass.

“For whatever reason, those books caught my attention,” Kline said. “During a study break, I would sometimes glance at them.”

Schottenfeld agreed that the college libraries are a trove of undiscovered treasures.

“There’s an eclectic collection of books,” Schottenfeld said. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

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