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

November 12, 2009

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."