December 3, 2023

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A library is often part of the core vision of a college campus in New England. And books – dusty, worn, in carts or tipped over on a table – are an essential part of this nostalgic image.

However, as many higher education services traditionally offered in person move online, more library materials and experiences have moved to digital formats.

Now Vermont State University—a new institution to be created out of three existing Vermont public colleges— he announced that they will transform their libraries “fully digital”.

Although the physical spaces will continue to serve students, administrators said print materials will no longer be obtained for students who do not have a documented accommodation showing they need them. The University will maintain a core of print books that are either heavily used or essential to the curriculum and cannot be found digitally, but will not retain the majority of its print collection.

While some librarians say the decision is probably nothing drastic new in the world of college libraries, other university librarians and students are criticizing the move, saying it goes far beyond the practices of other digitally-oriented institutions. As libraries grow digitized, so will the conversation about where the line is between embracing technology and avoiding physical collections.

“A very progressive decision”

Maurice Ouimet, vice president of admissions at Vermont State University, said the decision was the best-case scenario for the institution.

“It’s a brave decision. It is a very progressive decision and I think many other colleges and universities will follow suit in the not too distant future,” he said. “I really believe this is the way of the future.”

Ouimet believes the university will be the first among its partner institutions to so fully embrace digital resources, he said.

Vermont State will still have more students attending in person than online once it is created by merger in July. But the online registration segment is growing, Ouimet said.

In addition, the number of physical books that library staff put away is decreasing, he said. This probably indicates that students are becoming less reliant on books.

The switch could also save money. Currently, maintenance of physical collections is about 30% of the library’s operating budget, Ouimet said. However, the costs of the digital transition have not yet been quantified.

“Potential to really diminish the experience”

Despite its lofty language, the university’s announcement was met with outrage.

“I haven’t seen a community rise up in our system in response to something like this in a long time. It’s beyond our campus,” Ouimet said. “It’s because of the scale and magnitude of the change.

It was not only a change in students’ approach to the materials. The decision was also supposed to result in the cancellation of some positions in the library.

President Parwinder Grewal apologized to students, faculty and staff three days after the decision was announced, stressing that no physical library or campus will be closed.

“We have to make strategic decisions. And sometimes those decisions can mean a change in one area that will feel like a waste to invest in another area. As we make these investments, we also have a budget deficit of $22.6 million this year,” Grewal wrote. “I stand by the decisions – but those decisions are not the end of the story.” They are the beginning.”

However, the news did not reassure everyone who was concerned about the decision. For some, it only raised more questions.

“It has great potential to really diminish the experience of students and faculty at this institution,” said Erin Ellis, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries and associate dean for research and educational services at Indiana University.

“Digital collections are intended to complement print because not everything is available digitally,” Ellis said. “Not everything is digitized and not everything will be digitized.”

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