Last Friday afternoon, we walked into the Kelvin Smith Library intent on getting some work done before the weekend set in. We climbed the sterile white spiral staircase and started towards our normal spot on the second floor when we froze, looked at each other, and Jacob Martin said aloud, “It’s a f***ing library!?”
The tables and chairs, computers, and anything resembling a campus study space had disappeared. What appeared before us was a random collection of partitions, dry erase boards, relocated computers and new furniture reminiscent of a 1980s science fiction movie. The second floor was turned into a makeshift collaboration space.
Now we don’t particularly have a problem with this move towards collaboration, what we have a problem with is the execution of this move. We, like many students we have talked to, feel the first floor is the appropriate collaborative space. And all students know the frustration of trying to find a place to study in KSL during midterms and finals. What will happen with less quiet space and a more fragmented second floor at these times?
Andrew Breland spoke with Associate Provost and University Librarian Arnold Hirshon last semester about similar worries and Martin spoke to him Wednesday. We both found him very open, inviting and willing to meet with any students, and committed to total transparency.
The second floor among other things is a temporary experiment. “My staff and I use a principle of experimentation for innovation,” Hirshon told Martin. “One purpose of a library is to respond to what its users want, and through observation we’ve noticed there is more collaborative and active learning going on among students.”
However, the library’s move to purchase furniture and completely redesign the space appears to be here for the foreseeable future.
There also seems to be a move towards technology in libraries, especially here at Case Western Reserve University. But is this a wholly good thing? We acknowledge that technology cannot be stopped and is the way of the future, but it has its limits, especially in a library setting. Digital scholarship does not necessarily yield smarter students.
On technology, Hirshon said, “Librarians and staff members have told me there has been a surge in the checkout of technological equipment. Since we’ve displayed what we have like a Best Buy store feature, students now know what’s available to them.” He spoke about databases like JSTOR and their collective merit, a point that is well-taken. The existence of digital scholarship, however, does not undermine the importance or necessity of a wide catalog of physical library materials. Likewise, our horror at what the second floor has become—and what the library is becoming—is justified.
CWRU is currently constructing an 82,000 square foot building intended to be used in part for student collaboration; meanwhile, Thwing Student Center is currently underutilized. Wade Commons serves north side residents while Carlton Commons and Fribley serve the south side residents. There are buildings like Nord and the Peter B. Lewis Building that have 24-hour access for students—the former open to anyone while the latter serves business students. The Village and KSL have group study rooms. And then there’s the coffee: Three different Starbucks, one at the Village at 115, one inside the bookstore and one on Euclid Avenue at Cornell, plus there’s always the Coffee House at University Circle on Juniper Road.
So what is a library? On a college campus, a library is that one magical place where no one talks because the sole purpose for being there is for students to accomplish course-related work, especially individual pursuits like writing, reading or research. So we ask, what the hell is KSL? In our opinion it’s turning into something other than a library.
In recent days, the library has seen large-scale presentations and parties, Mario Kart video gaming sessions and a seemingly endless deluge of tours walking through the building. Each of these events distracts from the library’s primary mission as a place for academic investigation. Students cannot study when others play video games 10 feet below them. Sadly, it appears that one of the last places for true scholarly work on campus now spirals into irrelevance.
In February 2013, a news article written by current news editor Mike McKenna was run in this paper about college library funding which identified CWRU as 103rd in terms of library expenditure out of 115 research universities according to 2011 data collected by the Association of Research Libraries. Associate Professor of History and Law Kenneth Ledford was quoted, “The library is the laboratory for all of the humanities and the social science faculty. No one would think about closing the laboratories of the biomedical engineering professors or the biology or biochemistry professors.”
The article also notes that less than one percent of CWRU’s operating budgets in 2011 and 2012 went towards the purchase of physical library texts. So we must ask, why all of the expenditures on new furniture and a laptop computer rental kiosk when there is so little money to be spent on texts? Shouldn’t books and other academic texts be given priority?
Apart from our cosmetic and spatial issues, it is very clear that the biggest issue facing KSL is that of funding. This gets at what the university values and prioritizes. Perhaps our most biting criticism should be directed elsewhere, namely at library budget allocations.
According to the Library Materials Budget Overview: FY14 and FY15, which was provided by Hershon on Wednesday, from FY 2010 to FY 2013, CWRU’s average spending for library materials ranked 24 percent below the next lowest institution on the peer list (the University of Rochester), which spent on average $1.7 million per year more than CWRU. Peer institution average library materials expenditures excluding CWRU for FY 2013 were $14,256,878—nearly double CWRU’s $7,271,241.
Providing so little funding for library services sends a number of messages, including that some research is important while other research is not. When there is no money to acquire needed academic materials and texts, student and faculty scholarly work suffers.
If CWRU wants to tout itself as a big-league, prestigious research university, shouldn’t it set its libraries—the places where research materials are kept and the research is done—as one of its highest priorities? We think so.
Last Friday, after we struggled to study on the new second floor, we resolved to study in the carrels nestled away in the stacks on the third floor, away from the Legos and piano, away from the art exhibits and collaboration spaces. We resolved to be among the books.
Andrew Breland and Jacob Martin are opinion columnists. Both of them use the library practically every day.