Despite heavy opposition from humanities faculty and from many students and alumni, Yale decided last year to reduce the volumes held at Bass Library from 150,000 volumes to 60,000 volumes. They hoped to convert the extra space they gained into a glorious seating area. But after the so-called “renovation” of Bass — as Yale University Library terms it — I have found it difficult to study there because of these changes.
The brick columns at Bass designed to accommodate the shape of bookshelves are still there, but the space behind them is now empty. It is as if I am talking to the ghosts of books no longer present, having a conversation that future students will never understand since they never had the chance to see what the old Bass actually looked like.
The situation at Bass, however, is only one part of the debacle in the Yale Library system. Partly due to a poorly designed and executed “reshelving” process that has been going on for months, the shelving system is now in disarray and has had a serious impact on students who care deeply about their research.
In November 2019, I visited the Starr Reading Room at Sterling Library, where most reference books for the whole library system are kept. I discovered to my great shock that multiple sets of rare encyclopedias and dictionaries were missing volumes. I failed to locate an entry in an Italian dictionary because the volume I wanted was not there.
I immediately reported the situation to the student librarian sitting at the front desk, who was completely indifferent. Despite my repeated pleas for her to come with me so I could show her the problem in person, she insisted I should send her an email instead. So I went back, took pictures and sent her a list of some of the missing volumes.
Despite the fact that the situation I reported was serious and extensive, it took the librarian five days to get back to me. In her reply, she claimed that the missing volumes were kept off campus because they were fragile and could thus be better preserved. She misunderstood my report as requesting to consult all the missing volumes I catalogued and ordered them shipped to Sterling under my name.
A few days later, out of pure curiosity, I went to the hold shelf to see these supposedly “fragile” volumes, and it turned out that all of them were brand new and sparkling clean. These books clearly should not have been off campus since reference books should be kept in their complete sets. As a result of dysfunctions like these, the main reading room at Sterling is not operating as it should be and is making students’ research very difficult.
Since then, my experience with the Yale Library system has been a downward spiral. In a short span of two months, I have encountered three cases where a book supposedly “available” at Sterling could not be found in the stacks. In all three cases, I requested a staff search, but since they could not find them either, they requested replacement copies via Borrow Direct, which took multiple days to arrive and made meeting my deadlines very challenging.
I have been using Yale libraries for five years now, and I have never encountered similar situations before. But this incompetence is not the end of the story.
I invite all students reading this article to do a simple experiment: put “Hamlet” into the online search system and see what you find. You will find that there are only two physical copies of the 2003 Yale University Press “Hamlet” available for checkout, which is shocking since one would expect the library to own more copies given the play’s tremendous importance. This was the situation I ran into several weeks ago when both copies were checked out and I needed the book right away.
While I was wandering in desperation in Bass, I miraculously discovered an entire shelf of Shakespearean plays with multiple volumes of “Hamlet” that were somehow invisible in the online catalogue. I learned, as a Yale student, to not trust my university’s library catalogue. It is a very useful lesson because soon afterwards, I discovered “Twelfth Night” was invisible in the system as well. Luckily, I found it on the same shelf as “Hamlet.”
I also discovered that books by the same author could be catalogued under different author names. Some books can only be found with the abbreviated middle name; others can only be found without. What if you don’t know the author even has a middle name since very often public academic profiles do not include middle initials? Well, tough luck. You will be mulling around wondering why a pretty important book in the field cannot be located in one of the world’s best research libraries.
I have recounted these tales to several librarian friends, and they thought I was lying because such mismanagement was inconceivable to them. One of them asked, “So you are telling me that at the library of Yale University you cannot find a copy of Hamlet?” It took me some time to convince them that the Yale Library system is mismanaged to this degree.
So I ask: is the library still “the heart of the university” as is currently stated on the library website? I think not.
WENBIN GAO is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .