Yale’s Bass Library is truly unique. Even in comparison with Lamont Library, Harvard University’s undergraduate humanities library, Bass stands out as a culled collection, beyond a course reserve collection, that represents Yale’s exceptional commitment to teaching via the guidance this library provides to a select group of books. Bass is — for undergraduates, and even for graduates — where to look first. Like many of my colleagues, I teach courses for which there is a reserve list that directs students to certain volumes. But there are also occasions, especially in more advanced courses, where a larger “hunting ground” is a wonderful thing, especially when some thought has gone into the planning of the collection. Bass is like an intellectual nature preserve, whereas Sterling Memorial Library is like the borderless wild. While both are invaluable to a major university, they serve different functions and should continue to do so. True, the actual culling of the Bass collection has been long neglected, and we must be grateful to University Librarian Susan Gibbons for taking on the task of updating and trimming the collection. This will take additional commitment on the part of faculty and librarians alike, but it is labor well spent.
At the same time, however, those of us who love Bass Library and are dedicated to what it stands for must continue to deplore its “airportization.” The “newly revised” vision for the tellingly labeled “concourse level” of Bass continues the wretched plan to remove all 15 tall stacks. Tall stacks are out of fashion according to “New Library Science,” both because they allow for more books and because they obstruct students’ views when they look up from their laptops. While the new seating plan’s elimination of S-shaped lounge furniture is a bit better, there are no more book shelves in the new plan than there were in the old. Rather, there is merely a token, chair-high book display that is the equivalent of a magazine rack in an airport concourse. Until we see a plan that retains at least five of the tall stacks currently on the upper level, what we have is still not the renovation of Bass but the destruction of Bass Library. Given the premise that students like to study surrounded by books, we cannot remove virtually all the books from the upper level of the library and offer the same comfort that students may feel surrounded by the ghosts of books past. If this is the best we can do, then we might as well tell students to study in the new Schwarzman Center, where they can be comforted by the thought that there are still books in some of the surrounding libraries.
The destruction of Bass will accomplish one thing for sure: It will align Yale with a growing trend at other schools, the trend to de-emphasize “print culture” and move toward the increasing use of online resources. It is telling, however, that if we look to the Harvard model, what we find is that the plans for Bass strongly resemble what Harvard has done with its Cabot Science Library, which in renovation only kept about 25 percent of its former collection, crowding it all into compact shelving in one room of the lower level of the new library. Similar to the plans for the renovated Bass, there are, on the upper level, a range of study spaces, media studios, exhibits and technology-related alternative modes of learning free from books. Note, however, that this is what Harvard has done with its science library, not with Lamont, its humanities library. Yale leads in abolishment, or ignorance, of the distinction between the sciences and the humanities.
In addition, the newly revised plan still foolishly includes space devoted to model research exhibits. There is a fine irony in the fact that Leland Stange ’19, the heroic undergraduate who has led the student movement against the destruction of Bass, himself has a stunning model research exhibit about his senior essay on Alexis de Tocqueville in the Sterling arcade — where almost no one would think to look. Exhibits of that caliber deserve to be in exhibit cases in the Sterling nave, where visitors and students alike can enjoy beautiful representations of what Yale is all about. There is no excuse for putting them in Bass, where space is at a premium and could be better used for books or study carrels.
The News did the public no service by publishing the March 7 article on the Bass renovations alongside a photo of the plans for Bass’s lower level. That floor plan is just fine. Using that photo obscures the devastation still planned for the upper level, which, as the point of entry and the symbolic face of change, matters more than the renovation of the lower level.
Leslie Brisman is the Karl Young Professor of English. Contact him at email@example.com .