Library Committee hosts second open forum

To continue the open discourse surrounding the Miller Library renovations, the Library Committee hosted a forum on Tues., Nov. 18. According to a campus-wide email announcement from Professor of History John Turner, the purpose of this event was “to present what [the Committee had] found out so far and to invite discussion.”
This conversation was the second open forum on the Library, following an event earlier this semester in which the Committee addressed opinions on what Phase III of the renovations should entail. Both events led to tense discussion, as passionate faculty, students, staff and administrators questioned the process of the first two renovation phases and requested a re-evaluation of the library’s progress.
In this forum, the Committee wanted to bring more facts and statistics into the discussion, so it presented a multitude of data evaluating the College’s place among other highly-ranked liberal arts colleges. The committee examined nine other schools: Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Carleton, Haverford, and Davidson to see how Colby’s library system compares to other institutions in terms of budget, staffing, circulation, storage and other categories.
Turner began by reminding the group that “[his] voice carries no more weight than students’ [voices]” and reiterating that the purpose of the conversation was to “talk about what the numbers mean, find ways for Colby to go forward […] and discuss what [the College] hopes to accomplish in the end.”
One of the largest points of discussion was the circulation. According to the figures presented by the Committee, in the past 11 years, Colby’s circulation of books has gone from 39,857 to 24,305: nearly a 39 percent decrease. “It’s a downward trajectory…it has nothing to do with where the books are, and that’s something we need to talk about,” Turner said. Directory of Colby Libraries Clem Guthro said that “the circulation policy has not changed,” but he and Turner also clarified that not every book is tracked unless it’s been checked out. “It’s really hard to track that,” Turner said. “We don’t know what people are doing in the stacks, and it’d be creepy to follow them around.”
In comparison to similar colleges, Colby falls far below the average book circulation in the 2013-14 data. The other nine schools had an average of about 54,000 books circulated, compared to Colby’s 24,305. Colby also falls on the lower side for E-Journal Use (Colby’s figure is 116,887 compared to the average of 225,400) and Database Use (289,122 compared to 748,500.)
Many attendees refuted the emphasis on this data, claiming that it is hard to determine how many databases and books have actually been used, and therefore the statistical analysis methods could be flawed. Lucy Hadley ’16 mentioned that there is a large discrepancy between print and online circulation: “When you’ve checked out a book, you’ve already made a decision, but when you download journals, you do it more mindlessly: less thought goes into if you’ll actually use that journal,” she said. Associate Professor of English Elizabeth Sagaser echoed this statement, asking, “So isn’t downloading more like browsing than it is like taking a book out?”
The analysis of library hours, seating, and gate count was also a pivotal point in the forum. Turner stated the predicament that the Committee has faced: “We have a very limited space and that involves a choice [between] stack space and study space,” he said. In comparing these two options, the Committee once again used statistical data. Colby has 308,178 books in campus libraries (including Bixler and Olin Libraries), which is significantly less than the average of 580,000 books in the other libraries from the data packet. Colby also has more than three times as many off-campus books than any of the nine other schools in comparison, with nearly 210,000 in storage (see graph.)

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In terms of study space, Colby has the most seating of any school listed, with 1,158 seats after the renovations, just above Wellesley’s 1,166 seats. Students in the forum mentioned their overall approval of the increased seating. “Students go to library to study because they’re sure they’ll find a seat,” Holly Hogan ’17 said.
The Committee pointed out that Colby has the closest storage facility, as our location is technically on-campus. Guthro added that he plans to increase the frequency of retrieval from storage so that there will be three trips a day, seven days a week. Currently, there are three trips every weekday and one on Sunday.
Regarding library space, the Committee also discussed reference desks. Every college in the data comparison had either a separate reference desk or a combined reference and circulation desk. Colby, however, only has a circulation desk, which refers students to reference offices.
Professor of English David Suchoff pointed out that Colby used to have a reference desk, only to be cut off by Turner, who urged the forum attendees to focus on the future instead of looking at the library’s history. “I oppose your position that we shouldn’t be concerned about what happens in the past,” Professor of Classics Joseph Roisman said. “Yes, I’m a historian too,” Turner replied.
Turner said that, “at this point, [a reference desk is] not a feasible option,” estimating that the library would need at least ten new full-time staff members in order to run the desk. “That’s not the purview of the library committee,” Guthro said. However, John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History Elizabeth Leonard asserted its necessity: “I would say a reference desk is absolutely part of the future,” she said.
The forum also discussed outreach, as Colby is an outlier in terms of not having a systematic program of library instruction. “A lot of the work librarians do now is outreach…where we’re meeting one on one with faculty or students,” Circulation Supervisor Eileen Richards said. “The librarians need to be in the classrooms.”
“We need more staff. We really need to make that emphatic…we don’t want to be an outlier in not having that information literacy,” Sagaser added.
Library Committee members brought the conversation back to the idea that the College has limited resources. “We need to look at how much space we don’t have,” Turner said. Guthro added that in the 1980s, “we wanted to be able to accommodate 15 years of growth. Now it’s been 30 years, and we are still in the same space.”
“Keep our eyes forward…we’re here now,” Leonard said. “This is the moment when we need to figure out what we want…we’ve been told to dream big. We need to figure out what we want and need, and make a case for it,” she told the forum.
“Where do we philosophically want to put ourselves?” Turner asked the crowd. “What is the best library that we can have? What are the best education opportunities we can give to our students?”
Dr. Frank and Theodora Miselis Professor of Chemistry Whitney King turned the focus away from the statistical analysis that the Committee presented. “None of these [figures] tell us how well we’re educating students,” he said. “The hard question is, really, are we doing a good job of educating our students? What strategies [can] we take to produce the best possible outcomes for our students? That’s where the resources need to go,” King asked.
“My question is about time,” Turner said. He mentioned that the next open forum could revolve around the idea of how much students are using Miller Library, and whether or not the new study space has been beneficial.
“This is not the last conversation, this is not a formal report…this is the beginning of the conversation,” Turner said. “The library committee has decided nothing.”

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