If Yale’s entire faculty vanished overnight, if they fled from New Haven on a train under the cover of darkness, never to return again, the University’s library system alone — 15 million volumes — would stand as a sufficient replacement for the knowledge lost in their departure.
The value of Yale’s library is largely wasted on undergraduates, and the recent proposal to relocate an unspecified portion of the books from Bass Library to make room for study space is a sign that Yale is turning its back on its oldest and most valuable scholastic tradition.
Before it was Bass, the space at the foot of Sterling Memorial Library was called Cross Campus Library. Despite looking like a cross between a Soviet office and the lounge of a regional airport, the library was home to roughly 265,000 books — a collection that had been carefully curated by Yale’s academics to represent an introduction to the humanities. This was the undergraduate’s library, ground zero for any research paper.
The 2007 renovation of Bass made the space a warmer, less sterile atmosphere but whittled the selection down to around 150,000 volumes. Still, the guiding principle behind the library remained the same.
Last spring, in response to fears of overcrowding University Librarian Susan Gibbons announced plans to remove an unspecified number of books from Bass in order to make way for the 800 new students arriving over the coming four years with the opening of the new colleges. A committee was formed last fall, students and faculty members supplied their two cents and the “downsizing” project is underway, much to the chagrin of Yale’s humanities faculty members, especially those in the English Department, which feels a special sense of ownership over its portion of the Bass holdings.
Professors made strong cases for re-investing in library resources at this moment of growth. As English professor Katie Trumpener told the News, an increasing number of students use library books in class rather than buying them new at the bookstore. Merging these books with the roughly three million volumes in Sterling library would be an inconvenience to students and faculty members alike.
These calls for greater library engagement are coming far too late. It’s not that students have forgotten how to use libraries; we never learned in the first place. Yale does an inadequate job of library engagement on the undergraduate level, so much so that I find myself in the uncomfortable position of arguing to preserve a resource I don’t fully know how to use.
Data shows that a majority of Yale students prefer having books delivered via Orbis than enjoying the small victory of finding a book on the shelf. Instead of shifting books from Bass or displacing librarian offices with the Center for Teaching and Learning — yet another book-free environment — Yale should be investing in strategies to bring students closer to the shelves, not their laptop screens.
Gibbons has defended the relocation by arguing that the displaced books would not likely go unread, because students already check out books from Bass and Sterling with equal frequency.
Gibbons appears to misunderstand a central function of the library she is charged with overseeing. Bass exists as a place for undergraduates to browse, offering a smaller and more accessible collection of books in every field. Even in the age of online databases, location still matters.
Yale’s plans also reflect a misguided way of thinking about books as encroaching on study space real estate. Books are not incidental to one’s education, they are the main event.
What remains an important library access point for undergraduates will soon become simply a place to do busywork. Before long, Bass will be no better than a glorified underground common room for completing last-minute assignments, writing emails and sending snaps.
Do we not all have suites of our own in which we may, with equal comfort and with greater privacy, work to our heart’s content? Has the library lost any association with the books inside, and is Yale to march through its next hundred years without at least a small, Bass-sized place where the printed word can still be found?
Let me make a few proposals that may, I hope, work to set things aright.
Yale must do a better job re-acquainting students with books, preferably during their first few weeks on campus but also continuing through every subsequent semester. Faculty members should begin assigning more library-related work and, if necessary, take trips with their students to visit the books in person. Finally, library lovers should not give up so easily; use the library as it was built to be used, on foot, with a call number in hand and a title in mind.
Finnegan Schick is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .