What if I told you that all Yale input — from faculty, students and staff — on the Bass Library renovation project has been blatantly ignored for the past two years? Or that the project’s conclusion was decided from the start? Well, it’s true. If students don’t speak up, Bass will be closed for all of the next fall semester — and its collection will drop from 150,000 to 40,000 books.
In February 2017, University Librarian Susan Gibbons said in an interview with the News that “the Bass project will occur over the summer months so as not to displace students from Bass,” but plans have since changed drastically. It’s not clear how the decision to remove two-thirds of books was reached, or that library leaders have ever been interested in feedback on how to increase seating with minimal academic distraction.
At last week’s community meeting on the renovation project — deceptively described as a “conversation” — only library leaders were allowed to have their voices recorded, allowing administrators to “reinterpret” and water down the audience’s unanimous criticism during the Q&A.
A similar deceit took place in 2017, when only students who agreed with book-reduction plans were asked to sit on the committee in charge of developing the project. Student and faculty criticisms were then ignored at the public forums held on the renovation in 2018. Administrators have instead chosen to rely solely on the vacuous, pseudo-scientific report on library usage created by Nancy Fried Foster, an anthropologist without Yale connections who is driving this project without a care for those who actually live and work here.
Ironically, Foster has written an entire book on library spaces with a chapter titled “Designing Academic Libraries with the People Who Work in Them.” Meanwhile, her “ethnographic” study on Bass included only FIVE in-depth student interviews, with the bulk of her data coming from random observations across a single week in the term. Even if you don’t care about libraries, books or Bass, you should be worried that the intellectual direction of our library system has been hijacked by an outsider whose work wouldn’t even pass an introductory-level college seminar.
Yet Foster is no stranger to Gibbons, the head of the Yale library system. The two worked together at the University of Rochester, where they co-authored a major book in the field of library studies that reflects exactly the sort of reductive thinking that has gone into the Bass renovation project. They begin with the oh-so elusive question, “What do students really do when they write their research papers?” describing the process as if it were a precious secret, “…a black box that largely concealed the processes undertaken by the student.”
If the leader of one of the world’s largest research libraries doesn’t know how to write a paper, how can she understand the crucial relationship of books to education? Ask any Yale senior with writing experience, and they’ll tell you that physical browsing is not an antiquated novelty but central to the research process. I’ve found several of my best books for papers through serendipitous browsing in Bass. Administrators argue that the “browsing experience” can be preserved in Sterling Memorial Library, but just imagine a first year facing down the towering stacks as their introduction to library research This project has consistently ignored the original function of Bass, which is to serve as a more accessible way for undergraduates to approach a research question in its initial stages — or, dare I say, find books for fun.
Sterling, in contrast, should remain a preserve of special collections, such as the Yale Class Books, where I’ve stumbled upon treasures like a personal copy of Emerson’s Essays owned by Benjamin Silliman Jr., class of 1837. Imagine old Yalies thumbing through the same tomes, sneaking pencil annotations into the margins — oh wait, you can’t, because these precious relics are now being shipped to off-campus storage to make room for the newly culled Bass collection. In fact, the emptying of the two floors of Yale Class Books began two years ago, before renovation plans were even announced. Obviously, major book reduction has been in the works since the beginning.
It’s no revelation that students overwhelmingly choose computers over bookshelves. And I don’t blame them; as greater numbers of books are sent offsite, it becomes far more convenient to sit with a laptop than reference the shelves. If renovation funds were redirected toward the maintenance and promotion of collections that reflected Yale’s courses, surely more students would prefer books to staring at their screens all day or dropping hundreds of dollars at the bookstore each semester. It’s not that students increasingly neglect books; it’s that students can’t learn to appreciate books in a library already neglected by its administrators.
Gibbons’ new vision for the modern university library isn’t merely a means of saving space. If it were, University officials would have considered library usage a legitimate issue when they proposed an undergraduate expansion. Instead, Gibbons hopes to legitimize an anti-book culture within University life. Of course she and her ilk have ignored the Yale community for two years on this issue. After all, nothing should stand in the way of “solving” the problem of shrinking circulation numbers and preserving the “innovative,” salary-boosting work of top administrators.
I urge any student concerned about the renovation to directly voice your complaints to University President Peter Salovey and other upper-level, non-librarian management. It’s time for us to reject a Bass-less Yale brought about by baseless claims.
Leland Stange is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .