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.