How to Squander a Research Library

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Main Library bookstacks

The University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign is the largest publicly supported research library in the country; and as far as all university libraries go, only Harvard is bigger. The library holdings are regularly used as an incentive to recruit talented faculty, and scholars come from all over the country and beyond to use the rich rare collections. But, unfortunately, this amazing institution has been in decline for some years.

Neo-liberal ideology has permeated our society, and even though libraries are mostly government or non-profit agencies that focus on the public good, they are also being run on corporate models which emphasize public relations and the bottom line. The U of I Library is no different. As a retired faculty member from that library, I am in a position to explain what is being proposed for the renovation of that library. But first let me give some background. In 2013, I joined a group of senior librarians who retired around that time, and most of them left more precipitously than they had planned. The proximate cause was the implementation of “new service models”—that is, the elimination or merging of many of the departmental libraries: subject-based libraries scattered across the campus and within the Main Library building that served specific constituencies. For example, the Library and Information Science Library was closed, and the Applied Health Sciences Library was merged with the Education and Social Sciences Library. The public relations claim was that this consolidation would make it easier for library users to find their materials in a more centralized and less confusing way. Although there might be some truth to this claim for some library users, what was lost was often the close personal relationships that many, especially graduate students and faculty, had with those collections and the librarians and staff who provided comfortable and helpful spaces for their use. But I strongly suspect that the real reason for these new service models was financial.

New Proposed Library Project

The first indication of a proposed massive library building project came about ten years ago, when a document was distributed to the librarians showing newly designed beautiful spaces, the elimination of access to millions of books from the Main Library building, an emphasis on access to digital resources, the construction of more collaborative spaces, and bringing all the special collections together in a shared space in what is now the Undergraduate Library. These special collections include the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, a large part of the University Archives, and the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections. But at the time, it was clear that there was not the funding to actualize this $300 million vision, and the document faded into the background. More recently, it seems that some funding may have been identified, and the push to renovate has picked up steam.

Bogus Process and Pushback

One very common administrative technique to implement new plans is to invent bogus ways to receive input from various constituencies. The idea is to let people vent, and pretend to listen, but try to maintain the original plans as much as possible. The University Library administration has used such techniques over the last two years, including at least two big town hall-style meetings. Pointedly, the library faculty was excluded from a series of small group meetings called “salons,” aimed at specific groups. The justification was lack of time to schedule such meetings. That should have raised a red flag. Furthermore, the library faculty have been very quiet, and few have publicly questioned the plans. My experience has made me acutely aware of subtle intimidation against speaking up. One librarian said the library faculty have been “stunningly quiet.”

Humanities scholars have raised their collective voice, especially in the Department of History. In a December 20 letter, that department along with a dozen other individual faculty voiced their concerns. Their biggest complaint is the downgrading of the rich print collections, which are critical for deep scholarly research. These researchers have already witnessed the transfer of millions of books to remote storage, eliminating the ability to browse collections, and the productive serendipity of finding like materials useful for their research projects on the shelves classified by subject. The new proposed space would house only about 3.5 million out of a total of 14 million books in the collection, far fewer than were recently kept in the Main Library bookstacks. They are appalled at the planned elimination of the Undergraduate Library, a very well-designed space conducive to undergraduate needs, to turn it into a special collections building.

Undergraduate Library Building

Undergraduate Library

The Undergraduate Library building is underground and at risk of flooding. Note that both sump pumps failed after a major 2017 rainstorm, and water rose in the mechanical room. Luckily the collections were not affected in that instance. The letter questions why unique archival and rare collections would be moved to such a vulnerable place. The dedicated undergraduate space was designed with excellent lighting coming from the courtyard windows, but such lighting is the opposite of what is needed for delicate special collections, and a remodeling would be needed to adapt the space to its new use.

The Undergraduate Library is probably one of the most heavily used spaces on the campus, with more than one million visits per year. Undergrads like to study there and see it as a social hub. It has many specifically designed collections and services, including a computer lab, video production studio, and writing center. It is a vital and living space. Given that the project would take a minimum of five years, one must ask where the undergrads will go during that time? And will the new spaces in the reconfigured main library be large enough and able to meet their needs and those of graduate students and faculty as well?

University Archives

When I was working at the Library, the University Archives offices were housed in a cramped and inconvenient space off the tunnel that connects the Main Library building to the Undergraduate Library. Along with other building remodeling and consolidation, the University Archives got a wonderful new very functional space on the first floor of the main building in 2015. But it is quite likely that a consolidated special collections building would compress the space allocated to the archives’ offices and collections, and complicate servicing of the materials.

“Disaster Capitalism”

At the January town hall meeting, the Provost suggested that the entire project has been scaled down to about $200 million from the original $300 million proposed in 2009. Some money may have already been committed to get the project started, and the Chancellor’s Capital Review Committee gave the go-ahead in the latter part of March. But private gifts and money from other sources would be needed to finish funding the plan. There has been talk of collaborating with the Business School, which would like to put in a new classroom in the Library’s parking lot.

But all this planning was before the current coronavirus crisis. The timeline on the Library Building Project website calls for architectural design work to begin in late summer. As we are all well aware, the state and university budgets are going to be hammered by the decrease in state revenue. One wonders if funding for this project will disappear either before, or perhaps even after it gets started? Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis will actually stop these particular plans. But as we know from Naomi Klein’s book on “Disaster Capitalism,” The Shock Doctrine, there is great danger in various cuts and reorganizations at moments of crisis. The university community will have to be vigilant and continue to organize as developments unfold.

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