With 30 glorious libraries, over 15 million items, a nave that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year and reading rooms that have animated some of the greatest minds in history, the Yale University library system is indisputably an inspiration to us all.
Now contrast this splendor with another image: dark, uncomfortable, individual study carrels with no books in sight.
This could be the future of libraries as described in a recent report on student usage of Bass Library. The report was commissioned by the University to find study locations to accommodate the expansion of Yale College. A previous column (SCHICK: “The books in Bass,” Nov. 6, 2017) gave an excellent overview of the problems associated with a possible renovation prior to the report’s release. However, it is worth revisiting the broader implications in light of new information.
The renovation follows a pernicious trend across the University. Administrators frequently make drastic changes to Yale’s operations according to short-term survey reports, often affected by user bias, that generally seek solutions outside of pre-existing infrastructures. The result: a seemingly endless cycle of expansions, new problems and Band-Aid solutions.
Current plans to renovate Bass reflect Yale’s “patch-up” approach to major trend shifts among student populations — renovate and add instead of repurpose and maintain. But in some ways, the library renovations are indicative of an even more depressing pattern. Librarians today across the world often tout digitization and observance of modern technology trends as a boon; in doing so, however, they prove that they fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of a library. The library should always act as a preserver of knowledge, standing against the fierce onslaught of modernity and giving every patron a space to look thoughtfully and slowly at the world around them. The library should not offer an escape from humanity but an introduction to and deeper understanding about everything it entails.
The Bass renovation, if it prioritizes the removal of books and the addition of individual study carrels, detracts from any positive vision of a library. The report offers some ideas about steering undergraduates back toward the shelves, sadly noting that “many respondents had not touched a book in years,” but the focus was on tenuous data collected to study space allocation.
On-site interviews were only conducted with five undergraduates, with the majority of numbers coming from spontaneous observations as recorded by a contracted design anthropologist from outside of Yale.
Yet, even with a supposed focus on student accommodation, the report ignores several obvious changes that could be enacted without any major disruptions. Peer into the two bottom floor computer labs of Bass, and you’ll see keyboards pushed to the edge of the desks with the computers largely untouched. The rooms should each be turned into several new study spaces, a mix of the reserve and walk-in variety.
Other spaces could also ease the burden off of Bass. The Center for Teaching and Learning already offers several open study rooms, but even more offices could be devoted to the cause. Near Bass, William L. Harkness Hall has a host of empty classrooms where students can study at night. The new colleges, with a significant amount of empty space, could also offer more rooms devoted to late night study.
The report is further wrong to assume that students’ lack of interest in books is a reason to relocate them. Librarians should instead ask, How do we convince students to love the library again? Far too much effort is wasted on digitization instead of thinking creatively about how to reinvigorate a book culture. The report tries to connect the two concepts as a way of bringing students closer to what it calls “physical items,” but the library should also encourage students to approach the library as a library.
One way Bass can do this is to curate its collections from the Library Shelving Facility and Sterling Memorial Library to reflect classroom book demand. Students frequently make the claim that professors should offer more PDF readings to ease the cost of class materials. Librarians could hold physical copies of class syllabi, with instructions indicating how to find available texts. The current Bass class reserve system is also flawed — rather than automatically place seven copies of the same book on 24-hour reserve, for example, one or two should be held permanently for in-library use, and the rest should circulate freely.
I don’t mean to denigrate the efforts of Yale librarians — they are simply responding to a crisis that began with a severe lack of foresight by upper level administrators. To its credit, the report does detail several helpful approaches to reviving undergraduate library culture at Yale. But the future of libraries shouldn’t be tied to the attention spans of its young, laptop-wielding dwellers and shouldn’t depend on outside ethnographic studies to understand what the library fundamentally means to Yale. If you’re unsure, take a stroll to the southwest corner of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library to see the 1742 Yale library catalogue. That’s where this glorious university started, with just a collection of books.
Leland Stange is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .