• August 31, 2015

In Face of Professors' 'Fury,' Syracuse U. Library Will Keep Books on Shelves

A fight between humanities scholars and the library at Syracuse University over plans to send books to a remote storage facility has reached a temporary truce, with both sides agreeing to consider alternative solutions. The conflict began several weeks ago when the library announced it wanted to free up shelf space and save money by sending some of its print collection to a facility in Patterson, N.Y., nearly 250 miles away.

The humanities faculty reacted with what James W. Watts, chairman of the religion department, described as fury. Angry e-mail messages made the rounds. A letter of protest circulated by the English department got 101 faculty signatures, according to Mr. Watts. Most of the religion department also signed a protest letter.

The reaction was so fierce because of the high value humanities researchers still place on hands-on browsing, Mr. Watts said. "The big issue in the letters and among humanists generally is the importance of being able to browse collections and not have them in a remote location," he said. Recent library renovations to create more computer and work space have caused books to be moved around, according to Mr. Watts, and "part of the fury has been fueled by what looks like the emptying of shelves."

A high-level meeting with administrators and representatives of the library and the faculty "gave us an opportunity to express strong feelings that we'd been hearing from people on our side," Mr. Watts said. And last night, more than 200 students and faculty members attended a meeting of the University Senate to hash out the library situation, according to the university's student newspaper, The Daily Orange.

The senate meeting "was the longest and most vocal in years," Suzanne E. Thorin, the university's dean of libraries, told The Chronicle. "It means there's a lot of burning passion on this." Humanities faculty members have made it clear they consider the library their "central laboratory," she said.

She thinks the two camps now understand each other better. "It's good to hear people's voices," she said. "And instead of shooting me through the heart, some at least understood that we have these economic constraints."

Before it signs a contract with the storage facility, the library will take some time to look for alternative solutions. For instance, consolidating science resources online may be one way to keep more humanities materials on the campus, according to Ms. Thorin and Mr. Watts.

The debate has brought out "the real problem, which is that the library is underfunded and out of space," Mr. Watts said. "And there aren't any plans that anyone knows of to give the library more space or, for that matter, more funds. On that issue, we can make common cause."


1. higheredobserver - November 13, 2009 at 06:48 am

This story is not news. Virtually every other major research university maintains part of its collections off site. A 1999 Association of Research Libraries study showed that 80 of 122 members at the time were doing so. Surely, the Syracuse University humanities faculty is not claiming that it is unique in that its productivity hinges on the serendipity of browsing the stacks!

2. senecan - November 13, 2009 at 08:39 am

That the humanities faculty might have their way is news, even after subjecting the Dean of Libraries to the "most longest meeting."

3. phdcontrol - November 13, 2009 at 09:16 am

2 responses to higheredobserver:

1) Just because "virtually every other major research university maintains part of its collections off site" does not mean that such a policy is beneficial to the teaching & intellectual life of a university.

2) Though many libraries do maintain offsite facilities, few do so with a facility 250 miles away. Fewer still do so while gutting their existing libraries to install coffee shops, beanbag lounges and art exhibits.

4. jenhoward - November 13, 2009 at 09:18 am

Sorry, that "most" in the quote is a typo--my fault, not Ms. Thorin's. I've asked our web editors to fix that.

5. grumstrup - November 13, 2009 at 09:21 am

I agree with phdcontrol; of course most library's have remote storage; however, storage facilities are usually on the campus, or an off-site facility that is relatively close to the institution. I sense that it is the distance from campus that is more concerning than the fact that the materials would be in storage. But, I also agree with the professors in the humanities - they should have direct access to print collections.

6. historiker - November 13, 2009 at 09:49 am

A few points to consider: Are there in fact any remote storage locations closer than 250 miles that can take the books? One problem that pops up more and more is that remote storage facilities are filling up. I don't know for sure, but it could be that the nearest available facility may be that far away.

I also have to wonder why the space wasn't taken from journals and periodicals, which either already exist or can be made available online. It seems like that may have been another option to consider.

Finally, I have to wonder if the library was singling out humanities books, or if they planed to weed from every disciplne. We have to keep in mind that certain groups tend to use dated (or just plain old) monographs more than others. I'd like to know if the library took that in to account? Sending a 50 year old science book to remote storage would probably rile a professor in that respective department much less than shipping off a stack of literature books.

But lets keep on final thing in mind: libraries DO have a limited amount of space. Sooner or later, they have to choose between keeping existing works and letting the collection stagnate, or weeding underused or unused items and bringing in new material. We can't have it both ways. I understand the consternation about not having immediate access to books, but IMHO, if they havent been touched for 5-10 years, let them go, and deal with the shipping time.

7. jcrass - November 13, 2009 at 10:00 am

Offsite storage 250 mile or 2 miles away offer the same amenities regardless of their distance. I'm sure there may be a small fraction but it is safe to say most libraries with material in offsite storage offer 24 hour turn around on material requested whether the offsite is located on campus or not.

Research will not suffer from moving material offsite. If that were the case, Harvard, Cornell, Princeton and so on would not be the same major research institutions they continue to be to this day. Its different yes, but we all need to adjust to change.

Unless campus wants to build a new library facility, no amount of shelving is going to fix the space problem. If the library filled very inch of available space with shelving for material, they would only be putting off the inevitable for another 2, 5 or 10 years. Putting off problems for the next generations of faculty and librarians is irresponsible to say the least.

To say academic librarians don't understand the importance of physical and digital materials for the purpose of scholarly research is a slap in the face to any librarian.

8. commentarius - November 13, 2009 at 11:08 am

Resisting the temptation to cariacature humanities faculty as chalk-dusted, change-averse Luddites screaming in impotent rage at a real world they don't understand, attacking well-meaning librarians because they think they are inferior beings, it is to be hoped that cooler heads prevail and the economic reality of storing hardcopy materials becomes apparent even to the most enraged medievalist.

Distance to storage facility is irrelevant so long as delivery time is acceptable; the mileage factor is a purely psychological block.

And offsite storage is many times more economical than storing in expensive onsite library stacks - which must be lighted, air-conditioned, ADA-compatible, and so forth - as long as those materials are only very rarely used. If a book is recalled more than once every four years or so, it's not cost effective to put it in remote storage.

I won't argue the browsing/serendipity point; in an ideal world of course it would be better to have all library collections neatly arranged in open stacks in perfect classification order so that browsers would miss nothing (except what's checked out at the time). But libraries have not existed in an ideal world since, well, ever. Campus real estate costs money, as do books. Libraries fill up. If the scholars are made to understand that's it's a choice among storing remotely, discarding, or ceasing acquisitions, surely they will come around. Even a person afflicted with a PhD in comparative literature is presumably capable of figuring that out.

9. mmm1919 - November 13, 2009 at 01:38 pm

Where were these same students and faculty when many library staff members were laid off earlier this year? That didn't seem to bother them.

10. dean1114 - November 13, 2009 at 02:28 pm

"Coffee shops, bean bag lounges and art exhibits" are not the major reason that libraries need more space. Changes in pedegogical methods and our students' approach to learning are the key drivers. Our recent LibQual study provided evidence of a dramatic increase in students' need for group and collaborative study space; it also showed that faculty have not given much thought to where students do their collaborating for group assignments. It's the library, stupid! The shift to a more interactive teaching and learning process has had a tremendous impact on the need for library spaace for EDUCATIONAL activities. In the current economic climate, new or expanded buildings are not an option. Librarians have to make some tough choices about the best use of space. Hopefully these decisions are made with open consultation, but in the end they still have to be made. Instead of browing the stacks, faculty can browse the catalog with a simple call number search!

11. tsipley - November 13, 2009 at 03:24 pm

I'm interested in this metaphor of the library as the "laboratory" of the humanities. This is a metaphor I use all the time in the classroom when I chide my students who don't bring their books to class: "How in the WORLD could you not bring your novel to an English class," I say, "it's like showing up to a chemistry lab and not having any of the chemicals." As scholars of English our medium is language - it's the stuff we work with - and if we don't have it in front of us we can't do the work we need to do. Now, I know what you're saying: "just put it online." And I'm not against electronic texts. But, without giving all the details of an argument that has already been rehearsed, here simply is no substitute for browsing in the stacks. And, to come back to the science metaphor - once campuses start gutting science labs to build coffee shops I'll feel like this really is a general, campus-wide problem, and not a targeted attack against the humanities.

12. de_safran - November 13, 2009 at 03:28 pm

Some libraries have opted to use compact shelving for little used materials. For example Northwestern U. has open shelves and compact shelves. The Center for Research Libraries contains almost all compact shelves. While I don't know the real estate situation at U of Syracuse Library, certainly they should consider all alternatives including compact shelving and warehouse type shelving near campus.

13. 12008428 - November 13, 2009 at 03:32 pm

When I read stories like this, I suspect it's really about something altogether different: a world that is changing rapidly--because of both technological and economic change. The cost of acquiring and housing physical materials has grown exponentially in the past couple of decades. Meanwhile, students respond very differently to formats that their predecessors loved and treasured. Faculty who object to these kinds of projects are probably very uncomfortable with the rate of change in their world, and the library has been the last bastion of comforting familiarity.
It might be useful to acknowledge that no library can own or house all of the printed material in any one discipline. As a result, we expect libraries to participate in resource sharing arrangements that allow us to borrow from other institutions (aka interlibrary loan). The offsite storage option is a variant on the ILL service. That shouldn't be so scary to Syracuse faculty, who must surely borrow materials from places like Cornell, the SUNYs, Columbia, NYU, and the many fine small liberal arts colleges in their area.

14. 11134078 - November 13, 2009 at 05:56 pm

That's Paterson, NJ. One "t".

15. 11890636 - November 13, 2009 at 06:14 pm

I'm sure the Syracuse librarians have provided data on the proportion of the collection that is checked out or reshelved each year. In most universities with large collections that proportion is low, so given the cost of building new space -- for libraries or any other academic function -- it seems reasonable to consider migrating rarely-used books to much cheaper remote storage. This assumes, of course, that (a) the online catalog includes the entire collection; effective online search tools exist and faculty are comfortable in their use; faculty have easy access to network-connected computers, ideally in offices, at home, and in the library; and the university commits to rapid and reliable delivery from the remote facility.

In one distinguished university over a decade ago, the plan for offsite shelving was severely compromised by the paltry proportion of humanities faculty with network-connected computers in their offices, the vast number of books not yet in the online catalog, and the requirement that faculty compete with students for the modest number of public terminals in the libraries. Thus some of the savings from the library budget needed to be shifted to faculty computers and online cataloging to make the plan functionally and politically feasible. So Syracuse might consider a larger systems analysis, which could identify kinks that need to be worked out from the faculty perspective.

16. bookhouse - November 13, 2009 at 08:13 pm

To mmm1919, you should know that these same students and faculty were in fact there last year when the administration made major layoffs at the library in the first week of classes. We were disturbed that library employees were the largest group to go, and saw it as a part of Syracuse University's gradual de-prioritization of academic research in favor of other, more marketable images.
The real 'fury' here is that students and faculty have been questioning decisions made about Bird Library for almost a year now, and have only last week begun to receive promises for direct answers and open communication, if not the real thing.

17. phdcontrol - November 14, 2009 at 01:16 am

"If the scholars are made to understand that's it's a choice among storing remotely, discarding, or ceasing acquisitions, surely they will come around. Even a person afflicted with a PhD in comparative literature is presumably capable of figuring that out."

18. phdcontrol - November 14, 2009 at 01:35 am

^^^ quoted the above to say: Please. That's a false choice and you don't need a PhD to see that.

This is not an issue that came up overnight. The library was built to hold 2 million volumes. It now holds 1 million yet somehow has insurmountable space constraints. For years a significant expansion to Bird was proposed, but never funded. So this is a problem of poor resource management and poor long-term planning, and now radical changes are proposed as "emergencies." We've seen that song and dance before. In that light, claiming critics of this plan are the ones that lack foresight is...peculiar.

Nobody doubts this plan is more cost-effective. I imagine eliminating professors in favor of adjuncts, libraries in favor of amazon.com kiosks (hey, next-day delivery!), or eliminating classrooms altogether would also be cost-effective. But we would pause before making those changes because what is cost-effective isn't always what is education-effective or intellect-effective. If we can't acknowledge that the educational or intellectual impact on students, faculty and the community is enough reason to spend a little more dough, then what exactly is the point of a university?

As the honorable Sen. Lieberman has recently evidenced, "the economy" is often a convenient excuse for inaction. I personally fail to see how utilizing existing resources for three years while exploring partnerships with a city eligible for state and federal assistance, beginning fundraising efforts, and awaiting some degree of economic recovery would be any worse than paying rent & shipping to a third party for those three years. Would you be any worse off at that point?

I'm a new media scholar and I have great enthusiasm for the ability of technology to not only transform, but improve/democratize the intellectual and social function of the university. However, I emphatically reject the notion that these new spaces of collaboration and technology will come at the conveniently cost-cutting expense of existing technologies of archives and research. That's a cover story for corporatization.

19. rachel312 - November 14, 2009 at 06:02 am

It's been my experience that provosts, vp's for budget, and library deans will "blame" humanities professors for being intractable, childish, and luddite-like in their demands for library/reference services, while refusing to acknowledge that it is increasingly difficult to conduct research and scholarship (not to mention to get tenure) in the humanities. Humanities scholars deserve a few hundred square feet in the library of their universities if they want to do their research and serve their students, the same way science and engineering faculty have labs, business and technology faculty have computer labs and cyberspace capability, and students (should) have study and collaborative workspaces (in the student union or in *additional* library space).

Finally, until accessing humanities materials online is made as easy as accessing STEM field or business materials online, then archiving books and expecting people to wait a few days for their retrieval is terribly unfair. You can browse online, but you cannot browse via remote mail delivery.

P.S. (I'm NOT a humanities scholar and I can perceive these imbalances easily. When it comes to space in universities or anywhere else for that matter, those already in weak positions are always pushed around -- this is trusim worldwide, I think).

20. mbelvadi - November 14, 2009 at 07:37 am

I wonder if the faculty (and commenters) who praise "browsing the stacks" think the books just magically find their ways to the right spots for browsing to be effective? They don't - what makes it happen is a kind of librarian called a cataloger. This specialty within the profession has been under the strongest attack by budget-cutters even before the economic downturn, subject to layoffs and being given so much other work around the library that they can't find time to do a good job at it.
Even with catalogers, though, every physical book can only exist in one spot on one shelf, but many books are about more than one subject. All those researchers who think browsing is so important should take some time to learn the latest techniques for searching their opac, or even using its "virtual shelf browsing" features.

21. mmm1919 - November 14, 2009 at 09:57 am

To bookhouse:

I only hope then that if the students and faculty's concerns are addressed (either with the books not leaving or a change in the location of offsite stores) that they won't rest until those cut positions are brought back to the library.

IMHO if they care so much they should not accept a new solution without it also including more funding in general for the library and a reversal of the layoffs.

22. soc_sci_anon - November 16, 2009 at 03:20 pm

What I find so curious about this story is the geography of the offsite storage facility. 250 miles west of Syracuse puts you well into Canada (assuming you avoid the lake). 250 miles north brings you to the middle of nowhere, Ontario. Go south by 250 miles and you've in the middle of PA. Go east, and you are either in NH or the middle of MA.

NYC is almost exactly 250 miles SE of Syracuse, but I find it hard to believe that storage space is cheaper in NYC than central NY.

Those of you who are saying that 250 miles isn't really all that far for an offsite storage facility, and that surely books can arrive in 24 hours ... well, I suspect you've never tried to drive from NYC to Syracuse in the middle of a winter blizzard!

23. mfagrad - November 17, 2009 at 02:13 pm

This story is not news. Virtually every other major research university maintains part of its collections off site.

As does Syracuse--many older journals and specialized books are kept in "The Warehouse" located nearby. When I have requested items from there, I received them in less than a day--usually a few hours. The concept of off-site storage is familiar to SU faculty AND students. This new plan is more wide-ranging and inconvenient implementation of that concept.

The Libary has found funds to install a coffee shop and dozens of new computers. This money would have been far better spent in maintaining staff levels and making the library more convienent for browsing, research, and reading, not socializing.

24. brown33 - November 23, 2009 at 02:03 am

Not a space issue but a failure of the Library's leadership.

This issue is not about stogy old professors not understanding the need to find economical storage for little used materials or holding onto outdated romantic notions of libraries. It is about the failure of the Library's leadership to have a viable vision of the role of the Library at Syracuse. If there is anyone guilty of holding onto outdated, unimaginative, and unrealistic ideas, it is the Library's leadership.

Those familiar with the Syracuse know that the last thing the campus needed was another coffee cafe. Yet the Library stubbornly went ahead spending precious resources to build a cafe "because that was what other libraries did." Likewise, the Library seems totally and blindly enamored with the idea of providing computers and high-tech devices in the Library. Yes, students like and use this stuff, but one must ask whether spending precious resources turning books into computers makes sense. The last thing Syracuse needs is more computer facilities. Computer labs are already pervasive throughout campus and the campus is served by an excellent wireless network. The campus community doesn't need the Library to "connect."

Even the Library's plan for off-site storage is shortsighted and unimaginative. What about creating a shared storage facility for area libraries to encourage greater regional resource sharing of little used materials?

Firing librarians while hiring technologists, duplicating efforts of others, and wasting precious resources is not the way to meet the challenges of the future. To find answers as to why its services no longer meet campus needs and why the campus is so upset, the Library should look no further than its own leadership!

25. bghansel - January 13, 2010 at 09:46 am

I was a graduate student at Syracuse in the 1970s, and recall a popular "urban myth" at the time. We heard that the architect who designed the library had not taken into account the weight of the books, and it was said that the Syracuse library was slowly sinking into the ground as a result, at a rate which I don't remember, but it was something like 3/8" each year. Another reason to move the books? Probably not, but I couldn't help but be reminded of this story.

These days I would much prefer access to materials directly in my home or from any computer, though I do miss the smell of book mold and graphite on fresh spiral notebook paper. Still, it occurs to me that many alumni without access to a good university library would enjoy paying a small annual membership (maybe $50) to gain digital access to the collections of their alma mater, and know that they are supporting their school at the same time.

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