Faculty hosts school-wide open forum to discuss next phase of Miller Library renovations

After over a year of controversy surrounding phases I and II of the Miller Library renovations, the Colby College community’s frustrations came to a boiling point during a campus-wide open discussion on the future of the College’s “general education” library.
Administrators, students, faculty and staff gathered in a Diamond lecture hall on Oct. 9 for an “Open Forum on the Future of Miller Library,” facilitated by John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History Elizabeth Leonard and Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Robert Weisbrot. They invited President David A. Greene, Provost Lori Kletzer, Associate Professor of History John Turner and Director of Colby Libraries Clem Guthro to address the audience and answer questions on what will be next for the library renovations.
“Faculty initiated the idea of the meeting, but really it’s for students, faculty, and anyone interested in the future of our library,” Weisbrot said in his introduction of the event. He reminded the audience of the details behind Phases I and II of the renovations, which included “the removal of more than 150,000 volumes— half of the original collection—and devalued what we all intended the library to be….Many faculty members have found it damaging, and students have had more difficulty with research,” he said.
Weisbrot closed with a quote from author Haruki Murakami: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
After Weisbrot’s opening remarks, Greene and the renovation committee leaders welcomed questions from the audience. Lee Family Professor of English Cedric Bryant began the discussion, asking what Phase III of the renovations will entail. Turner replied, “No conclusions have been made, but we are planning to have more open discussions throughout the year.”
Tionna Haynes ’15 requested that students have input in the next stage and said that “either we stop calling Miller a library, or we make it the library that Colby deserves.” The audience applauded, after which Guthro said, “Libraries are more than just books.”
Professor of English David Suchoff refuted Guthro’s defense of the renovations. “I send my students to Bowdoin to find a James Joyce collection, and I’m ashamed that I have to do that.” A librarian replied by asking, “Why not send them to the storage facility, then?” With the mention of the controversial storage facility came a new discussion about the off-campus space.
Alice Gauvin ’15 offered a student perspective on the off-campus storage facility, which holds about half of Miller’s collection as well as a smaller number of volumes from Olin and Bixler libraries. “It’s not a nice place to study—it’s cold, there’s one sad desk, there’s no real system of organization…. It doesn’t make sense to send students off campus when we have a library right here,” Gauvin said.
The topic then shifted to the idea of using digital resources for research. With the scarcity of books available in Miller Library, administrators and librarians have encouraged students to turn to online databases.
Associate Professor of English Elizabeth Sagaser stressed that these resources are not sufficient for her students nor for her own research. “I’ve learned in teaching students about using digital resources how important it is to understand what those archives represent,” she said, referring to the physical stacks that used to be more prevalent on campus. “It’s nice to have books in front of you and kind of create an architecture of texts to visually have your research form in front of you,” Sagaser said.
Lucy Hadley ’16 agreed, adding that walking through book archives “relates to the overall theme of liberal arts. It’s not just a straight shot to one topic—viewing stacks of books means looking at other subjects, too,” she said. Professor of Religious Studies Debra Campbell added, “We were so lucky up until now to have an open stacks system where we could just run up to grab a book we might need, and we’re realizing that we took that for granted.”
Guthro interrupted to say that “the average student uses Google to look things up and doesn’t turn to the library books.” Sagaser responded, “I don’t think we should tell students what the average student does.”
Multiple professors added their own stories of how digital archives are insufficient and why professors and students alike benefit from an open-stacks system. They used personal examples, like a professor needing a specific book a few minutes before class starts, to support their argument that the 24-hour delivery system does not fulfill their research and teaching needs.
Librarians in the audience grew frustrated with the professors’ negative responses to the new system. “After 26 years here, I feel very afraid of and personally attacked by the faculty, and the overall tone is disrespectful and unfair,” Circulation Supervisor Eileen Richards said.
Scholarly Resources and Services Librarian Marilyn Pukkila added that the library staff members have been called “liars, Nazis, book burners and other names.” The tension grew until, during Suchoff’s comment on why the new system is not the librarians’ faults, Richards walked out of the room in tears and said, “I just can’t listen to him any more.”
Turner tried to adjust the tone of the event by concluding, “What I see at the core of where we are now is a lot of broken trust…. We need to heal this first, then talk about the spaces, where the books are, what we want in the future and how to move forward.”
Greene intervened at the end of the discussion, offering to stay as long as necessary to take questions and talk to community members about what’s next for the library. He also commented on the discussion. “It’s disheartening to hear the nature of all the tension…. I’ve heard that there was controversy surrounding the library, but today, it’s much more real,” he said. “I’ve dealt with this same process in [University of Chicago and Brown] and I’ve realized that you have to find a way forward that is right for your institution…. I have a sense of urgency about this.”
In a post-forum interview, Pukkila echoed these sentiments, noting that while the changes were a response to “a decade of student surveys wanting more study space and better lighting,” the librarians had very little input. This trend has continued, she said, as Guthro and the librarians weren’t even notified about the forum. However, Pukkila believes the single greatest disappointment of the forum was that “the meeting was billed as a discussion about the Library’s future, but was instead used as a place for grievances.” While she believed that the airing of complaints was a necessary aspect to reconciliation, she wished that it had occurred in a more appropriate setting.
Fellow librarian Karen Gillum responded in a different way. Because Gillum interacts with members of the faculty on regular basis, she has seen that the faculty object to the policy, and are in fact “grateful for what the people in the library do.” She believes the forum was helpful, as “it’s important for people to talk about issues without personalizing them on either side.”
The arguments over the library ultimately come down to whether or not the College should prepare for the supposed digitalization of texts. The administration continues to support the idea that other colleges are making the same changes, which is partially true for NESCAC schools.
Amherst College’s library went through renovations in the summer of 2013 to remove 168 stacks in order to make room for a cafe and a lecture space; Connecticut College’s Shain Library is currently under construction “to create more comfortable study spaces,” but the website does not mention the removal of any books; Tufts’s plan for Tisch Library is to increase study space, but the administration says, “We can expect that existing print materials will continue to have substantial research value for the foreseeable future.”
Bates College’s “goals for 2014-15” mentions expanding digital resources but say nothing about the removal of volumes. Bowdoin College’s last library renovation was in 2005, and the library website shows no plans of future renovations.

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