Remembering the core purpose of university libraries

On October 6 and October 14, MIT Libraries hosted sessions to solicit student input on the upcoming renovations of Hayden Library. I was present at the second session, and was alarmed by much of what I heard. More specifically, I believe that many of the proposed changes and renovations will result in a library that fails to adequately support researchers who rely on timely access to print materials.

A summary report from the student input sessions lists five prominent activities that the library should support: work and study spaces for individuals and groups; spaces to learn and create; semi-social, quasi-public places to work and socialize; spaces to reflect and take a break; visible and prominent places to display exhibits. Many of the recorded suggestions regarding the renovation have to do with aesthetic considerations — the library should be well-lit and inviting, comfortable furniture should be available for relaxed reading and napping, the layout of Hayden should be so optimized as to minimize disorientation and confusion, and so on.

These are understandable goals. But those who want to make these changes should not lose sight of the fact that the libraries’ main purpose should still be to provide research materials. For researchers in some disciplines, access to extensive, on-site physical collections is an absolute necessity for effective instruction and scientific progress. I worry that the planned renovation of Hayden will have serious consequences for these members of the MIT community.

According to the summary of the student feedback sessions, books merely serve as “reminders of the physical artifacts of knowledge”, and sitting among them “is calming and makes [one] want to study harder.” The overall student recommendation is to “maintain some stacks”, in part because they can “provide a buffer zone” between study areas and group spaces. Although it is acknowledged that “reading through titles is a rich and interactive way to search for information,” many seem to be unaware of the necessity of these physical collections. The overall impression one gets from reading the document is that students do not find books a necessary component of a university library. The dissenting view expressed by several attendees — that books are an important part of the library — is not reflected in the summary.

The current plans for the Hayden redesign involve an unspecified number of books leaving the shelves for an off-campus storage facility in Southborough, MA. Delivery from the storage facility can take anywhere from 2-7 days. Although I understand that it is an important priority for MIT as a whole to create more spaces for group study and instruction, this should not come at the expense of the core function of its academic library: to support the research of students and faculty. I urge the libraries to consider carefully the needs of the entire student body, especially those whose learning and research crucially depends on reliable access to Hayden’s collections.

Juliet Stanton is a graduate student in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.

Anonymous about 3 years ago

And don't forget that these proposals will waste "tens of millions of dollars" that could have been spent on attracting top researchers (who do not place great emphasis on how aesthetically pleasing the library is when deciding which institution to work at).

Jeff Ravel about 3 years ago

Building 14 was constructed in 1950. It has not had a significant renovation in 64 years. Three-quarters of the budget provided for this project will go the modernization of elevators, ventilation systems, restroom facilities, and other building infrastructure. I suspect that MIT's world-class faculty and students will appreciate working and studying in a modern, comfortable facility that is up to code, once the renovations are complete.

Jeff Ravel

Professor of History

Chair, Faculty Committee on the Library System

Anonymous about 3 years ago

If it's the contention that the only use of a library is for accessing research articles, why is there a need for a physical library at all? Can't they just download it and print it at their office? Or is the library just like Kinko's?

I think libraries ARE useful. Many undergrad students do like to have a physical space for studying. Also, actual books are useful to undergrads, as they may want to read about a subject in a general fashion. It's not unheard of for grad students to do the same. As quaint as it may sound, maybe students also would like to peruse the stacks and find something that looks interesting to them. While undergrads do perform research, in general, accessing primary research articles is not the primary purpose of a library for them.

I am an alumnus, and I found the MIT library pretty disappointing when I was there.

Anonymous about 3 years ago

What a heap of false dichotomies in these comments! A great library can attract top researchers AND look good (comment 1). I am sure the library can be brought up to code AND keep its books (comment 2). A great university has a large collection accessible to researchers (most books are not downloadable) AND is great for casual browsing too But I stand with the author of the letter. The CORE mission of a university library has to be supporting research and education by making books available to them. An institution as great as MIT can surely figure out a way to do that and still have a pleasant space good for studying and browsing.

Anonymous about 3 years ago

The majority of the libraries use at MIT is for digital journal articles. The other uses are important too, but the way most people interact with the library for accessing collections doesn't involve the physical space. The way people spend most of the hours in the library is studying, meeting or working. The library serves many purposes and the physical space should evolve with the changing needs of the community over time rather than stick to a historic purpose of a library.

Anonymous about 3 years ago

The relative importance of books and digital journal articles varies a lot by field.

Anonymous about 3 years ago

4: You appear to have misunderstood my point. Of course a pretty library is nice, but top researchers are going to go where they have the funding and equipment to do their research, and where other highly respected researchers are, not to the institution that has the prettiest library. The quality and quantity of research performed at MIT is the root of MIT's future success. It is a vicious cycle if MIT starts diverting money from research: declining research output deters top researchers and students from coming to MIT, and leads to less income from research grants, both of which lead to further decreases in research output. All MIT spending should therefore be evaluated based on the opportunity cost of the research that could have been conducted with that money. I do not believe that spending such a substantial amount of money on the library will provide anywhere near the value that would justify it. There are plenty of lesser institutions that have much prettier campuses than MIT.


Bob Miller about 3 years ago

As a student, I always enjoyed following an information or citation trail through the bound journals, books and abstracts. I was often sidetracked, to my benefit, in directions other than what I'd planned. This opportunity for serendipity should go on regardless of how the libraries are reformatted or reequipped.

Anonymous about 3 years ago

MIT sometimes loses undergrads to peer institutions because the campus is largely ugly. And I have to believe the way students are treated while on campus affects their potential donations as alumni later. If the attitude is as in #7 that a penny spent on the undergrads is a penny wasted, then they are less likely to part with their money later. And these donations affect the resources for research.

If we are going to be stringent about spending, then stop spending huge amounts of money to get big-name architects to build experimental, creative, but non-functional ugly buildings on campus. (e.g., the sponge dorm, among others.) MIT probably could have spent less money to make a more aesthetically pleasing dorm.

Peer institutions manage to have decent looking libraries by the way.