Opinion guest column

The future of books in Hayden Library

Researchers’ concerns should not be ignored

This fall, several articles have acquainted the MIT community with ongoing plans to redesign the library system. One effect of the planned changes will be a decrease in the space for print collections, requiring many books to be sent off-campus. We write for a group of linguists, faculty and students in Course 24, whose research and teaching relies on Hayden Library’s books, and on their immediate, on-the-shelf availability. We want to raise questions about how priorities are set and decisions made in planning the redesign of the libraries; how the community has been kept informed of these developments; and how library officials view the mission of the library in a research university like ours.

How priorities are set

Several changes under discussion will result in a reduction of the space for books in Hayden: the Hayden mezzanines will be removed; spaces for individual and group study will be expanded or added; and books may be moved into Hayden from other libraries.

We firmly support the need to make Hayden accessible to all readers, which entails the loss of the mezzanines. That aside, we question why new study spaces should be created in the library at the expense of the book collection, as opposed to distributing them throughout the campus; and why books from outside Hayden should replace books now in Hayden.

A draft of the Library’s planning document suggests there is a painless way to create space in Hayden: send the “monographs with very low use” to “the remote shared storage facility with 48 hour scanning and delivery service.” We doubt there is a reliable method to determine if a book is of “very low use.”

This opinion is based on our experience with the previous rounds of book removals. Several years ago, large numbers of books in regular use were removed from Hayden. This has already seriously impaired our work. One can also question the assertion that the remote shared storage facility makes documents available within 48 hours.

In our experience, it can take up to a week, sometimes longer, for off-campus books to reach us. Books requested over the weekend always take longer. Even if the 48-hour interval were the norm, immediate on-shelf availability is often critical in our research. It’s important for general exploration, and it’s the standard in academic libraries.

A more basic question is why the readers’ immediate need for books carries less weight with our library administrators than the convenience of additional study space in Hayden. In search of answers, we have looked at how other libraries balance the same conflicting needs. The academic libraries known to us (Harvard’s Widener, Yale’s Sterling, and those at Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA and UMass, Amherst) clearly have different priorities than MIT.

In those libraries, stacks take up most of the available space and the same “very low use” books that Hayden has already sent to off-campus storage stay on the shelves, because you never know when someone might open them and learn something useful and perhaps even important from them. For the most part, readers sit at small desks or shared tables in public spaces.

The present space distribution in Hayden is already quite different from these other libraries. Only Hayden’s basement and the periphery of the two reading rooms are taken up by bookshelves, while vast empty centers in the reading rooms house communal reading tables, generally empty. Meanwhile almost 50 percent of the campus book collections are in storage. How is this present distribution of the space in Hayden justified? Why must Hayden change to have even fewer books available to its readers? Why isn’t MIT moving in exactly the opposite direction?

Being at MIT, we can imagine a world in which technology makes it possible to enjoy all of the benefits of browsing unfamiliar titles on a shelf and browsing them with the immediacy of a physical object. Currently, the technological options available to us focus on searching, not browsing (and only in a limited way, at that). MIT could be a leader in developing the tools to make virtual interaction fast and effective, but we are nowhere near ready to replace the act of physically interacting with books in a library, and development of such tools is not stated as a priority in the vision documents.

How decisions are made and how the MIT community is informed

The plan to redesign the libraries and reallocate space in Hayden will be presented to MIT’s administration by the end of the month. We are grateful to Stephen Gass, Interim Director of the Libraries, and Jeffrey Ravel, Chair of the Faculty Committee on the Library System, for providing this information and for patiently listening to our concerns.

We think the faculty and students whose work requires library services should be consulted before this plan is submitted. These consultations should include concrete details about the consequences of each plan for on-campus collections: e.g. how many books must we ship off campus to make space for each new study or meeting area? There should be ample time for public discussion. In the end, MIT should act on a plan that has the support of the community members who need access to the library collections the most.

In our conversations, Stephen Gass and Jeffrey Ravel indicated that the reduction in the space for books will be done on a case by case basis, rather than evenly across disciplines, and that representatives of all departments will be consulted. We appreciate this, but we are not reassured. Even if some discipline’s books are spared entirely, an unlikely option, the planned reductions virtually guarantee that books currently housed off-campus will not return.

As linguists, we really need to see all the linguistics books return, and we suspect students and faculty in many other departments have similar wishes for the collections in their fields. We would like a library whose books are available to readers the moment they are needed, as they are to our colleagues elsewhere.

The mission of the library

One question raised in our consultations with library officials is what conception of the library’s mission justifies taking space away from books and investing it in study nooks. We have been referred to a strategic plan that defines this mission as that of “creat[ing] and sustain[ing] an evolving information environment that advances learning, research and innovation.”

We value these objectives, but they’re not informative in the present context. We were looking for a statement of principles that explains why some functions of the library must be sacrificed to others. Why is making books immediately available to readers less important than expanding study spaces in the library? And who decides?

We look forward to a discussion of these questions.

All authors are members of the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Adam Albright and Edward Flemming are Associate Professors. Donca Steriade is a Professor. David Pesetsky is the department head. Juliet Stanton is a graduate student.

Anonymous over 8 years ago

I don't see how removing the mezzanines helps people with accessibility issues. What happens now: such people can ask a member of staff to bring down a particular book to them. What will happen if the mezzanines are removed: such people can request the book online, and wait for delivery. In addition, people who do not have accessibility issues are also negatively affected. How is this an improvement?

Stephen R. Anderson over 8 years ago

As a former student at MIT (PhD 1969, Linguistics) I hope the people proposing these changes attend to this article. The point about the central importance of browsing as opposed to searching in creative research is a key notion that librarians (or "library scientists," rather) seem not to get.

The amount of stuff already sent to offcampus storage here at Yale has already had a noticeable impact on work my own, anyway. Things here may not be as bad here as what it sounds like is proposed for MIT, but I find all too often that descriptive material on little-studied languages has gone to the warehouse and that makes it clear that other things I wouldn't have known to look for must be there too.

Yale's Sterling Library has room for only about 4,000,000 volumes, and the collection is about three times that (and constantly growing), so it's obvious something has to give somewhere. Nonetheless, any move that would reduce the amount of material that's easily available for browsing is strenuously resisted, and should be at MIT too.

Anonymous over 8 years ago

Colby College sent half of its collection to storage to provide study space in students: they now work in a student-center cafeteria environment without the food. This controversial Miller Library renovation made faculty and student research more difficult. Librarians remain deaf to faculty concerns, and head Librarian Clem Guthro calls this the "library of the 21st century." LIS types produce straw man of "the fully browsable collection was a myth:" but first-rate scholarship still requires on-site book collections.