Sunday, January 11, 2015

Barnard College's New Library Stirs Controversy

On many occasions, I have visited Barnard College Library on the Morningside Heights campus in New York City. The library is located within Lehman Hall, a four-story building with a below-ground level that formally opened in April 1960. Barnard College Library occupies the first three floors of Lehman Hall.
Barnard College Library is housed in Lehman Hall, seen here.
Image via

In 2013, the administration at Barnard College announced plans to demolish Lehman Hall and construct a new, state-of-the-art facility in its place. What would these plans mean for the college library? Faculty and staff at Barnard College Library didn't know for certain until a faculty meeting held just weeks before Christmas, on December 2, 2014.

Prior to the December 2 meeting, faculty and staff at Barnard College Library were informed by email about the resignation of Lisa Norberg, who had been the Dean of Barnard Library and Information Services since 2010. Staff at the Columbia Spectator, the campus newspaper for Columbia University, obtained a copy of the November 21 email, which stated Norberg "will be leaving the College on December 31st of this year to devote her full attention to the launch of an exciting non-profit venture focused on Open-Access Network." News of Norberg's resignation did not bode well for the future of Barnard College Library in relation to plans for the new facility.

Indeed, at the December 2 meeting, Barnard library's faculty and staff learned that the layout of the new Teaching and Learning Center would require the removal of 40,000 books from Barnard's on-site collections. Also, the amount of space allocated for the library in the Teaching and Learning Center would be minimized. Barnard library's faculty and staff were largely left out of the planning process for the new library. (One anonymous staffer said "they weren't listened to" and, in fact, were "shut down and gagged.") At the December 2 faculty meeting, they were merely informed by Barnard president Deborah Spar about the administration's plans for the new library, according to the Columbia Spectator.

Barnard library's faculty and staff expressed great dissatisfaction over the administration's actions, citing "reducing the library's collection from 200,000 to 160,000 books, minimizing the space of the library in the new building, and a lack of transparency in the planning process" as their three main areas of concern, reported the Columbia Spectator. In regard to the removal of 40,000 books from the library's collection, faculty and staff were told by Spar at the December 2 meeting "that the size of the new library won't allow for new acquisitions to be added in the future." (Another anonymous source refuted this claim, saying, "That's actually not true. There's not much growth space, but we'll still acquire new books.") Speaking to the Columbia Spectator, an anonymous library staff member said, "We are a very small library, but our books circulate a lot. The impact of not having those books accessible is big."

The Columbia Spectator stated, "Of Barnard's 198,000 current volumes, 20,000 that are unique to Barnard's library will be stored at Columbia libraries during the construction of the new library, and the rest will be in storage" at an off-site facility. Many faculty and staff believe that such a move is in direct conflict with Barnard College's mission. "How are we conceptualizing the role of the library as it relates to the mission of the college? Twenty-first-century colleges are made up of all kinds of media - that's a fact and that's, generally speaking, a good thing - but I think the concern really has to do with what the balance is of different kinds of resources for an institution like ours and what are the criteria that are being used to decide how that balance is being established for us?" Elizabeth Castelli, Ann Whitney Olin professor of religion at Barnard, told the Columbia Spectator.

Via the Columbia Spectator

Barnard's new Teaching and Learning Center will be designed by architectural firm Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill LLP. The new facility will contain conference spaces, classrooms, labs, study and dining areas, a cafe, and the library. "When you look at the design of the building and the first thing you see is the Athena Center and the cafe, it in fact has usurped the mission of the college, which is for critical thinking and the production of knowledge," an anonymous faculty member at Barnard told the Columbia Spectator.

Frustrated at not being listened to during the decision-making process for the new library, Barnard College Library's faculty and staff have made their voices heard in other ways. On December 8, 2014, the same day that the Columbia Spectator revealed plans for the new library and its place within the Teaching and Learning Center, concerned parties vented on social media. In response to one library staff member sharing the Columbia Spectator article on Facebook, one obviously exasperated commentor said:

"As a sign o' the times for academic institutions generally, it is wildly depressing that the plan puts the cafe and the bullshit Athena Center front and center. Especially in light of Barnard's ongoing efforts to hide and downsize those unfeminine STEM fields. The library is the lab for humanities scholars, but I guess the humanities aren't a Barnard thing. And math and science are too hard for Barnard women. So that leaves them with what? Lattes and 'leadership studies.' Leadership of what? No actual content required..." 

Echoing this sentiment, another commentor said:

"Part of the whole national trend to turn the library into a student center and downplay the information resources. Everyone is seeing library spaces shifting rapidly into something that doesn't resemble a library." 

Employees of Barnard's library articulated their concerns and advocated for the library and for themselves in an op-ed piece published in the Columbia Spectator on December 29, 2014. The piece, titled "People Over Paper in Barnard's Library," was penned by Jenna Freedman, Michael Diggs, Vani Natarajan, Martha Tenney, Alexis Seeley, and Nick Wolven, all of whom are Barnard Library & Academic Information Services (BLAIS) staff representing the archives, collection services, IMATS (Instructional Media & Technology Services), the Personal Library program, and the zine library at Barnard College Library.

In the op-ed piece, these BLAIS staff members state, among other things, that:

"A library's worth is not based solely on its book collection. Despite its compact size, our collection has the second highest circulation in Columbia. Our little collection is carefully curated by thoughtful and knowledgeable librarians. Areas of specialization include women's studies, dance, lesbian genre fiction, LGBTQ young adult books, and works supporting First Year English.
"Our offerings and accomplishments are not sad, but mad impressive. The spaces and physical resources are important mostly in that they aid us in supporting the liberal arts mission of Barnard College. Our staff is small, but we achieve a lot through collaboration with each other, students, faculty, and campus units. Our vision for the new library is one in which these collaborations can flourish, one that represents all the strengths of BLAIS."

This Columbia Spectator article was also shared through social media, including Twitter. On Twitter, the response to the op-ed piece was ample:

Let's hope the administration at Barnard College reconsiders its plans for the new Barnard College Library. The campus library is an indispensable resource for any college or university. To recognize it as such, and to respect the library faculty and staff who strive every day to make it an indispensable resource, is necessary in order to fully serve scholars on campus and off well into the future.

For additional information on the plans for the Barnard College Library, go HERE, HERE, and HERE. For more on the new Teaching and Learning Center, go HERE. To read the complete Columbia Spectator op-ed article by BLAIS staff, see THIS LINK.

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