Valerie Pavilonis

Alas, we are past the point where disagreements about the future of Bass Library can be politely handled by writing emails to a dead-end site set up to absorb excess anger on the subject. What looms is not just a renovation project to ruin Bass Library, so beautifully, thoughtfully, tastefully constructed just a dozen years ago; it is a project to turn Bass Library into Bass Lounge, and thus to pursue a larger vision of having Yale follow the path so many satellite-campus state schools and for-profit colleges are following of letting consumer interest determine what majors are offered, what library resources are available, what use is made of academic or living spaces.

The irony is that even so crude a guide as “consumer interest” would not produce the current renovation plan for Bass Library. Students do want more study space in the libraries, but they want that space in libraries, so it is ludicrous to propose removing all the books from the concourse level of Bass to make more airport-like seating. If “consumer interest” were the standard, the Bass collection of some 150,000 volumes might be reduced, say, to the 100,000 most frequently borrowed plus the books requested by professors to be out there for students to see. Even a reduction to 75,000 volumes would leave a sustainable and potentially admirable undergraduate library collection — especially admirable if faculty (not just circulation statistics) were regularly involved in deciding which new books belong in Bass and which old ones should be shelved in Sterling Memorial Library. But the proposal to reduce the collection to 40,000 volumes, and to have these stored on the lower level or (for books on reserve) behind the circulation desk where there will be no browsing, is just shameful. I do not believe that a survey was taken to ask students whether, if they had to choose, they would choose to house all the Arden Shakespeare volumes or vending machines in Bass. That is not the way to make decisions about an undergraduate library. But how far above that was all the surveying that was supposedly done?

Was it any less ludicrous to hire an ethnographer who asked concerned professors to play with collections of sea shells, feathers or marbles to get professors more accustomed to the idea that collections don’t have to be collections of books? Those of us who endured that session, so disrespectful of our legitimate interest in the library, concluded that there was no exploration of views; such a session could only have been designed by someone with the prevenient belief that the emphasis on books in a library had to go.

If the major problem that the proposed renovation aims to correct is insufficient seating at night when underused Sterling with its huge reading rooms is closed, there is one immediate solution which would cost very little but add 100 fine study spaces: Instead of closing the tunnel to Bass from Sterling at its head, the basement of Sterling (call it “Bass East” if you like) could be left accessible and a retractable wrought-iron gate could block the marble staircase to the rest of Sterling. The other two doors to the Sterling Nave could easily be locked or given “emergency exit only” devices during after hours. A hundred extra study spaces and no architectural devastation! Contrary to what President Donald Trump insists on with his wall, not all solutions to complex problems are best resolved by new architecture.

Besides the loss of books from Bass, tens of thousands of which are in high circulation, what looms is the loss of the most beautiful furnishings, only a fraction of which the planned renovation would retain. But a little sense of history would not let this pass so easily. Cross Campus Library, the ghastly antecedent to Bass, was designed as a modernist “statement”; it was by design that the place was to be all in black and white. That may have made a very hip architect happy, but students loathed it. The warm tones of wood, brick, brown leather and “comfort green” in Bass are not just signs of good taste; they are marks of decorating with the interest of students, not fashion mongers, in mind.

If increasing the seating in Bass is a legitimate goal, why would anyone propose cluttering the concourse level with exhibit cases when there is all that empty space in the Sterling Nave where the exhibit cases used to be and rightly belong? When the Sterling Nave was restored, University Librarian Susan Gibbons said that the nave should be “a destination, not a passageway.” But by removing the exhibit cases, she has turned it into a passageway, an eerie one for visitors to fill and stare at emptiness. I am reminded of the look of certain restored German synagogues whose hollow magnificence, guides say, might be sullied by the presence of books, let alone worshipers. But actually, we have a better image of disapproval built right into that magnificent Eugene Savage mural that is the crown jewel of the Sterling Nave: One of the figures attending Alma Mater (the nude one!) was modeled on the reference librarian whom Savage so admired. Neither she in person nor her representation could be proud of the emptying of the nave of exhibits or the proposed emptying of Bass of books.

Leslie Brisman is the Karl Young Professor of English. Contact him at leslie.brisman@yale.edu .

  • Josiah Gibbs

    If only books could be delivered to the Bass Front Desk in 1 business day from external shelving…

  • Josiah Gibbs

    Also is “I am reminded of the look of certain restored German synagogues whose hollow magnificence, guides say, might be sullied by the presence of books, let alone worshipers” referring to what I think it’s referring to?

  • 123456qwerty

    Gibbons needs to go.

  • http://pobox.com/~flash Flash Sheridan

    I agree; a library should have books, and on my trips back to Yale for reunions, Bass has seemed a wonderful replacement for Machine City.

  • Nancy Morris

    The positive kernel of this article seems to be that the author has an idea that would involve using space in Sterling Library instead of remodeling Bass. That idea is not obviously without merit, and one assumes (or at least hopes) that the author has presented the idea to Ms. Gibbons and others involved in the Bass renovation. Yet the author does not say that any such presentation was made or, if it was, what response his idea received. Why is this all missing? For what it is worth, it is not immediately clear to me that the basement area of Sterling Library could be made safe if its exits were blocked while Sterling itself shut down, as his idea seems to contemplate (if I understand it correctly). Perhaps that could be accomplished. But Sterling/Bass is a complex set of structures, and the devil could well be in the details. Also, the “Bass East” space to which the author refers would appear to be windowless and of far inferior quality to that of Bass, especially as remodeled.

    The author should have addressed – or at least mentioned – changes in the internet, small and portable computers, and information storage and retrieval technology that have occurred since Bass opened. These changes have seriously affected the Yale student experience, especially the entire practice and practicalities of faculty putting materials on reserve and of browsing. In particular, it seems highly unlikely (to me) that many of those using Bass at any given time are using materials actually stored in Bass.

    More generally, many elements of this article seem poorly reasoned and supported. We are certainly not past the point where disagreements about the future of Bass Library can be politely handled, by writing emails or otherwise. The claim that complaints have been directed to “a dead-end site set up to absorb excess anger on the subject” is entirely unsupported and, frankly, comes across as more than a bit overwrought. Nothing prevents or has prevented the author from writing and hand delivering a letter setting out his ideas and objections to Ms. Gibbons (with copies to anyone he chooses), and requesting a detailed response. Nor do the renovation plans contemplate undoing the existing admirable design and decor of Bass, which the author correctly notes are a vast improvement over those of the original Cross Campus Library. In fact, the renovation would brighten Bass and augment the design features the author admires. Nor is there any support provided here for the insinuation that the renovation plans result from any “consumer interest” process. Using the Mexican border wall controversy as a crutch to oppose the Bass remodel is crude, even puerile. And analogizing the Sterling nave absent its exhibit cases to empty German synogogues is inappropriate and borders on the offensive: Holocaust imagery is not to be casually invoked. Doing so, at a minimum, is not polite.

    • RemedialArgumentation

      Thank you for your measured replies and thoughts on these two opinion pieces concerning the library. These op-eds have turned what should be a conversation among parties with expertise on the libraries into a nasty mud-slinging fight that dirties the university’s reputation. I’m hoping voices like yours take the lead moving forward.

  • yalie

    “If increasing the seating in Bass is a legitimate goal, why would anyone propose cluttering the concourse level with exhibit cases when there is all that empty space in the Sterling Nave where the exhibit cases used to be and rightly belong?”

    — This is a good question. Exhibit cases set up in the Sterling nave would also be seen by a lot more people.

  • ldffly

    Thank you.