Eric Wang

In anticipation of the expansion of Yale College, University librarian Susan Gibbons last year commissioned anthropologist and library culture expert Nancy Fried Foster to explore how faculty members and students engage with Bass Library. Her report, completed three weeks ago, will help guide plans for the upcoming renovations of the library, which are expected to begin in the summer of 2019.

The renovation is intended to create more study spaces to prevent overcrowding and ensure that Bass continues to provide a welcoming place for students to study once Yale College reaches its full expanded size, with 800 additional students filling the two new colleges on Prospect Street, Gibbons said. The creation of additional study space will ultimately necessitate at least some decrease in the number of books housed at Bass Library, which is currently home to more than 150,000 books. Yale has not yet determined the extent of the reductions, Gibbons said.

The report, which examined library use from an ethnographic perspective, is the product of more than 1,000 interviews and observations of students, faculty members and staff. Foster and a team of library staff documented through observations in Bass how more than 700 members of the Yale community use the library, conducted phone interviews with faculty members about how they would like students to use it and spoke with students both inside and outside Bass about how they use the library and asked them to create drawings of what their ideal study space would look like. Foster then analyzed the drawings for patterns, which are also discussed in the report.

The report concluded that students come to Bass for intensive school work and more often for individual studying rather than group studying. According to the report, the most coveted study spots are the individual study rooms and the study carrels, and overall, students value visual and auditory privacy over lighting and comfort in their study spaces. As a result, Gibbons said future plans for expanding study spaces in Bass will focus more on creating individual study spaces rather than adding large tables or rooms for group study.

The report also found that students have minimal interaction with the collections at Bass beyond what is needed for school work. They come to pick up reserved books but typically do not spend time browsing the collection. It is the quality of the space, not that of the collection, that draws students to Bass. Faculty members interviewed for the report expressed disappointment that students do not engage further with the books and expressed a desire to see increased student engagement with the collection.

Since the Bass renovations were announced at a Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate meeting last year, members of the faculty have expressed concern over the fate of the collections of books in Bass and the loss of student interactions with the collection. The faculty senate formed an oversight committee, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Bass Library, in response to faculty concerns.

Ruth Koizim GRD ’77, a member of the FAS Senate and a  French lector, said that real research happens when one has the opportunity to browse related books on a specific research topic. Removing books from Bass “drives that idea completely out of the water,” she said. Koizim added that as Yale continues to diversify, students are coming to the University who have never worked or done research in a library. For them, she said, going up into the stacks of Sterling Memorial Library can be a “scary thing,” while Bass is more familiar.

English professor Jill Campbell GRD ’88, who chairs the newly formed ad hoc Yale College Library Research Skills Committee, said the facts about undergraduate use of Bass need contextualization in light of extensive anecdotal evidence that a large share of Yale students lack basic library-use skills. She added that the library and instructors need to provide training in library skills before the University arrives at any conclusions regarding student use of printed collections.

“It seems that library leadership, faculty and the University as a whole have not been adequately fulfilling their responsibilities to educate students in how to use the extraordinary resources of the Yale library system,” Campbell said.

Gibbons said members of the library staff have recently worked with faculty members in the English Department to explore where the gaps lie in student research skills and discuss the possibility of incorporating basic library skills into introductory English courses.

Neither Koizim nor Campbell had seen the report, which is not yet public. Gibbons said the report will be made public and distributed University-wide next week, along with announcements of upcoming public events to advance discussions about the renovations of Bass. Foster will host another session to field more design suggestions from faculty members and students on April 17. And the library will hold two community forums on April 19 and April 24 to discuss the kinds of books that should continue to be held in Bass — an area that the report does not cover, Gibbons said. These community forums will continue in the fall to help plan for the renovation, which is tentatively expected to start at the end of the next academic year and conclude in January 2020.

The University is working to finish renovations of other study spaces throughout Sterling Memorial Library to accommodate students during the Bass renovations, according to Gibbons. Gibbons and her staff are also looking into the possibility of keeping one of the floors of Bass open to students while the other is being renovated.

Gibbons said she hopes these discussions will produce ideas about how to further connect students with the books in Bass, whether by allowing students to curate the collections or rotating the books housed at Bass and planning programming around a certain theme.

Biology professor Mark Mooseker, a member of the faculty senate library oversight committee, said it is “good news” that the ongoing process is taking into account the views of  students and faculty members, in an effort both to create better study spaces and reinstill within students a “love of browsing those stacks.”

“As a preinternet scholar, that was the most impactful part of my undergraduate and graduate student experience,” Mooseker said.

Adelaide Feibel | adelaide.feibel@yale.edu