One of the reasons why students and faculty have so many reservations about the Bass Library renovations is that the entire project is driven solely by the need to create more study space for students. Had the driving force behind the renovations been a wish to create a more perfect undergraduate browsing library, I believe we all would be much happier. The truth is that Bass Library urgently needs such an initiative. As University Librarian Susan Gibbons states, many books in the collection “haven’t been checked out in years” (“Bass Renovation Criticism Grows”). In comments to the News, in presentations to students and faculty and in emails to the community, the removal of books for which there is apparently “no interest” has consistently been presented as a beneficial side effect of a more important project — that of creating study space for Yale’s growing student body.
The poor circulation numbers for the Bass collection is a sad comment on how the Yale libraries have for years failed to curate the collection appropriately. As far as I understand, if a book is put on reserve for a class, it is then shelved in Bass. Clearly, this alone is too poor a method of selection. I recently checked the shelves for the fields in which I teach, only to discover that Bass is full of books that I do not want to read and that I do not think my students will learn well from. Any passing visitor will also notice that many of the books are in poor physical condition, giving the stacks of Bass a shabby look. These are not features that inspire learning.
I believe the Yale community would dearly like to hear the library administration present a reasoned argument for what an ideal undergraduate library should look like, what it should contain, what its purpose is and how it can be suitably connected to online resources. Is 40,000 books the right size for the physical browsing library, or is 150,000? Yale is one of the highest-ranked colleges in the United States for undergraduate education. Do we have an undergraduate library that is also the very best? Do the proposed changes make Bass a better library? Shouldn’t the library administration attempt to answer these kinds of questions rather than treating us to calculations of how many students can be fitted into a given space? We deserve better.
For my part, I would like to feel confident that I can send my students to a specific shelf in Bass so that they can find the best books with which they can begin to research for term papers and other learning assignments. As an undergraduate professor, one of my greatest challenges is to steer students to appropriate literature and sources, both online as well as on the shelves. I hope that moving forward, the library will be a more helpful resource for education on campus.
Anders Winroth is a professor of history at Yale. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .