Higher Education Without College Library Is Dreadfully Wrong Move

If you were confronted with a budget shortfall, would it seem logical to cut funding to the foundation of whatever program or institution was in the red? Perhaps it is due to it being Monday morning or that outside my window the snow seems determined to linger on the Adirondack chairs but the illogical and upsetting news story from Vermont just catches me as folly.  To be honest, it could be Friday and balmy and the following news would still be pure folly.

Leaders of Vermont’s public colleges are taking an extraordinary step to save money: getting rid of most of the books in the campus libraries.

Reducing the number of librarians who manage the 300,000 books across four campuses could save the system $500,000 annually, the university system’s leaders say, as part of their effort to close a $25 million structural budget deficit.

The fact that public colleges nationwide are seeking ways to cut corners and still create serious-minded graduates is not news. Rather it was the short-sighted and stunning response to a budget shortfall in such a ludicrous fashion that caught my attention, and more so since this highly troubling move comes from an educated and supposedly reasoned administrator.  

The Boston Globe, which reported the news that landed in my email, surely was not intending for the heavy hand of irony to land so loudly.  But there it was in print from Parwinder Grewal, president of three public colleges that will soon be called Vermont State University.  He argued that getting rid of books in the libraries will be a boon for students on campus as “the planned $500,000 library renovation will replace stacks with study space.”

So, in the midst of a budget deficit that ‘requires’ the removal of the majority of library books, there is now money for a half-million dollar remake so students can study in a place absent of books? 

“This university will look so different and [will be] so relevant to the current needs of the state,” Grewal said.  With only 12% of the books remaining in the stacks, it will absolutely look different, there is no doubt.

Some students and faculty expressed concern that an online library would limit access to books and knowledge in a rural state like Vermont, where many residents still lack Internet service. Others mourned the loss of physical books and worried about how students and faculty will access texts that are not available online. A spokesperson for the state colleges said they are working to provide students with Internet access at home.

“Vermont is not a good place to be a guinea pig for this,” said Charlotte Gerstein, a librarian at Castleton. “There’s not broadband throughout [the state].” And, she added, “a lot of our students with learning disabilities have told us that they need to read in print.”

I guess, perhaps, when many Americans can discount the importance of cursive writing, something this blog bemoans, and others able to remove books from a college library and frame the matter as ‘good for students’ it should not surprise the rest in the nation why educational outcomes are often noted in need of being remedied.

Let me offer an example as to why this story is of concern. Over the decades, I have been drawn to the letters between John and Abigail Adams as they give huge insight into the thinking of the often-dour John, and his marvelously opinionated (for her era) better half, Abigail.  The reason I use them in this post is that any student desiring to grasp an understanding of the past needs to read cursive writing, and then find such books on the shelves of our higher learning institutions. Trust me, the long detailed letters between these two underscore the politics and love shared at the distance they endured for so many years all for the sake of democracy. The wonderful flow of the pen and the glory of putting thoughts to paper is the type of written account that college libraries should have available for students.  The intimacy and poignancy of the letters are still breathtaking. The skill of the pen and the fluid nature of their conversations allows college students to be most aware of the powerful minds and intellects that allowed this nation to be created.  There is no doubt that without a willful woman named Abigail, there could not have been the self-assured and forward-thinking John.  The two were a team. They should be known by these letters.

Such books should always be among those found in college libraries. It would be a real loss if they are not found in the stacks at Vermont colleges.

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