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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.”
Faculty from three institutions to be merged expressed disbelief February in the supervisory board that oversees them. The same month students from the dormitories they took their cause to the Statehousebearing signs emphasizing the importance of physical books to the educational experience.
The Vermont Library Association and Vermont School Library Association both issued statements opposing the plan. Several op-eds appeared in local publications arguing against the decision.
Critics generally argued that digital collections are important, but that Vermont’s decision was ill-conceived and likely to negatively impact students.
Some raised the issue of justice. Not all students in rural Vermont have quality Internet access. Texts unlikely to be digitized are often by authors from groups underrepresented in science.
The surrounding non-university community would likely suffer, some said, if the university unloaded collections previously accessible to others through interlibrary loan. Students could lose the joy that comes from coming across new material in stacks of books and the comfort of reading off a screen.
“It’s very troubling,” said Margaret Woodruff, chair of the Vermont Library Association’s Government and Advocacy Committee. “It’s not that digital shouldn’t be there, but that it absolutely can’t replace print.”
And while it may seem like the decision could lower college costs, it could also be more expensive.
“Sometimes an e-book is significantly more expensive, sometimes three times more expensive than a physical book,” said Charlotte Gerstein, reference and instruction librarian at Castleton University, which will be merged with Vermont State. “It’s going to cost a lot of money to make more of these texts available to unlimited users.”
Three out of five employees at Gerstein’s library have received layoff notices, she said. The commission was already working on another transformation plan that included the adoption of digital materials until further notice, she said. And working with the staff may have yielded other solutions, such as acquiring a physical collection.
Gerstein said the current plan puts the university at the mercy of publishers, and there has already been confusion over access. Publisher Wiley last year 1,300 e-books removed from their academic collections. Wiley said the move was due to a “regular review of the collections” but said he would restore access when pushed.
Beth McNeil, vice president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, is dean of libraries at Purdue University. Although the university has a smaller print collection than some other institutions and adheres to a digital-first philosophy, he feels Vermont’s decision will dilute the student experience.
“We still buy print books on request, but if we get a request for something to add to our collections and the media isn’t specified, we go digital,” she said. “But even here at Purdue, we still value the press that we have because we know that at this point, they’re not replaceable.”
Other libraries have already been digitized first
But other librarians said Vermont’s decision is nothing new. Mark McBride, associate director of libraries at research nonprofit Ithaca S+R, previously consulted for their library with Vermont officials while working at the State University of New York system. In his understanding, he said, the move doesn’t conflict with where the libraries are headed or with the general “digital-first” philosophy.
“The reduced image from the print collection is nothing unique,” he said. “Institutions are putting more resources into student success and less into physical materials.”
The University of Texas at San Antonio has had a bookless science and technology library since 2010. Across the library system, print makes up only 2.5% of borrowed material, but takes up about 7% of the library’s budget, Dean Hendrix said. , university librarian. This has helped the university conserve space and serve its students, who are mostly Latino and often eligible for federal Pell Grants, which are designed for low- and moderate-income students.
A technical library without books works well, Hendrix said, but it’s small and niche. A bookless format will not work in every discipline.
“There are, of course, some disciplines that still rely on print for their pedagogy and research,” Hendrix said. “Art history is where you can imagine a big board with an art book or radiology where you have X-rays where you might need something in print to really get the full experience.”
Elaine Westbrooks, university librarian at Cornell University, expressed similar thoughts. The university’s engineering library is almost entirely digital, but the rest of Cornell is not. Digital may be right for engineering, but more difficult for other fields, she said.
“What Vermont State has done is not really very new,” Westbrooks said. “The lesson from this whole situation is that libraries are beloved, they’re iconic, they’re sacred.”