An alumnus’ petition to President David A. Greene

By Alan Taylor ‘77

Professor of History at the University of Virginia

Dear President Greene:

Please allow me, as an alum (class of 1977) to congratulate you as the new president of a college that has been essential to my personal and professional development. I have remained engaged with Colby in a variety of ways since my graduation. In 1984-1985 I served on the faculty as a visiting lecturer in the history department. Subsequently, I have given four public lectures over the years, received an honorary degree at commencement, and was selected for the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2007. And I believe that my career as a historian has been a credit to my alma mater. I also have been a steady financial contributor, and hope to do more in the future.

Pivotal to my development as a student was direct access to the resources of Miller Library. I spent hundreds of hours there, particularly during my senior year, when I pursued an honors thesis on Maine’s politics during the early nineteenth-century. My experience with that thesis persuaded me to pursue graduate study in history and to concentrate my work on the early American republic. The collection at Miller Library proved essential to the first three articles that I published including one that derived from my honors thesis.

Historical research (as with many other disciplines) requires the patient recovery of connections between disparate pieces of evidence found in many textual sources. Although digital collections are a wonderful supplement to books, they should not be mistaken for a substitute.

And physical proximity to books and other textual sources is essential to thorough research. As a student, and later a faculty member, I made many important discoveries by exploring shelves of books directly without the mediation of a data-base.

As you can imagine, I am troubled by reports that a massive renovation of the library is underway that has removed half of the books, substituting office space for texts. This renovation began abruptly, without notice or consultation with any significant number of faculty members.

And it has proceeded relentlessly despite the protests from many faculty and students. Despite their repeated and respectful requests for a reconsideration of this renovation, they have been ignored or their concerns have been dismissed as insignificant. Such disregard for faculty wishes has demoralizing consequences, which will be felt in recruitment and retention, to say nothing of teaching. The college can have no greater source of strength than a shared sense that faculty, students, administrators, and trustees will work together for the common good. I am sorry to see this mutuality eroding so rapidly. 

I realize that you are new to the college and are not yet responsible for the profound alteration of Miller Library. Fortunately, you now have a precious opportunity to correct a flawed process and a limited conception of the role of a library in the intellectual life of a liberal arts college. If access to books and faculty morale do not matter at Colby College, where will they matter?

I know many of the faculty members who have signed petitions requesting a reconsideration of the design and a recommitment to true consultation. I can attest that they are accomplished

scholars and constructive, thoughtful people who had devoted their careers to advancing the mission of the college. The process of revitalizing the library can only be advanced by drawing upon their expertise and insights.

I hope that you and the Board of Trustees will work together with the faculty and students to preserve Miller Library as a scholarly resource essential to the college.

Thank you for your consideration.

  • Jorge Olivares, Allen Family Professor of Latin American Literature

    I’m not surprised, as Professor Leonard points out in her eloquent remarks, that during the “Grand Opening Celebration” it was (proudly) said that the renovations fulfilled “the vision of ONE PERSON [i.e. the Director of Libraries] rather than the vision of the community.” Let us not forget that that same person, in an internal official document about the plans to renovate Miller, (proudly) stated that “faculty input was neither sought nor welcomed.”

  • David Suchoff

    Thank you, Professor Alan Taylor, for supporting the faculty of Colby in our attempt to restore a first-rate library to our beloved campus. In an academic community, excellence will never be attained by imposing one person’s vision on others. The devastation of Miller Library has been the result. As Professor Leonard points out, Miller was transformed into a majority off-site collection “in the face of continuing strong protest from dozens of teacher/scholar faculty.” We will never achieve new President David Greene’s goal of ascending to the top-ten of liberal arts colleges by making vital research and learning material harder, rather than easier, for out students and faculty to use.

  • Elizabeth D. Leonard, Gibson Professor of History, Colby College

    Many thanks to Alan Taylor ’77 for his wonderful letter about the library. I would like to point out that in addition to being a distinguished professor of early American history at the University of Virginia, Alan has won the Pulitzer Prize for history TWICE. He is a brilliant scholar, and one of Colby’s most impressive alumni.

    I would also like to add that I attended the “Grand Reopening Celebration” for the newly renovated Miller Library earlier this week. There were quite a few people there, though I did not see too many of the teacher/scholar faculty during the half hour I was around. There were refreshments and a chamber group playing music. The “historic reading room” looked bright and fresh and was full of chattering people. And there were even some reference books on the shelves at the room’s perimeter. I was very happy to see them, though they looked rather like fondly remembered very old relatives who periodically get invited to family gatherings but who are then are remanded to the sidelines while others quietly ridicule the contributions they try to offer to the conversation or the table.

    I was troubled, too, by the strong, positive emphasis that was given in the formal remarks to the idea that the renovations have succeeded in fulfilling the vision of ONE PERSON rather than the vision of the community, not least those of us who spend most of our lives here teaching in the classroom or doing scholarship. Aren’t we at the heart of the college’s academic mission? Shouldn’t the library be? Indeed, no one said a single word about the teaching/scholar faculty. No one mentioned the enormous inconvenience the renovations have posed over the last two years for many faculty members’ teaching and scholarship (inconvenience that the renovations will continue to pose going forward). No one offered even the simplest acknowledgment of the problems the summertime disruptions (to put it mildly) created for us, especially for untenured faculty who are earnestly trying to meet the scholarly demands associated with positive future tenure decisions. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the teach/scholar faculty were considered irrelevant.

    The Miller renovations were undertaken abruptly, at great expense, in the face of continuing strong protest from dozens of teacher/scholar faculty, and in the end we were called together to celebrate bringing to fruition ONE PERSON’s vision of what our library should be. That doesn’t seem like cause for celebration to me.

    I hope that in the weeks and months ahead we can move energetically beyond one person’s vision for the library to something better, something that grows out of a shared vision for the sort of college we want Colby to be. I look forward to another, more fulfilling celebration, when Miller is transformed again into a library that we, Colby’s teacher/scholars, can recognize as the library we–and our students–need in order to do the work we do, a library that can make all of us (or at least most of us) in the community proud.