Not Without Opposition, Some UT Books Moved to Make Way for Technology
By Vicky Camarillo
Thomas Palaima sees a bit of irony in one of the first triumphs of the Foundry at the University of Texas Fine Arts Library.
A joint initiative between UT’s library system and the College of Fine Arts, the third-floor Foundry, which opened in 2016, features 3D printers, sewing machines, a recording studio, and video and audio gear. But in order to make room for the equipment, thousands of books and other materials were removed to make room for a new design program.
Yet when a Doctor of Musical Arts candidate was searching for a piece of music recently, he instead stumbled upon another composition that inspired him to use the 3D printer to create a six-string violin.
Palaima, a classics professor who was among the many faculty members and students protesting the removal of library materials, said the musician’s project “wouldn’t even exist except for the whimsy of somebody working in a traditional library.”
The library has made national headlines in recent months as faculty and students protested the College of Fine Arts’ decision to remove materials from two floors of the building to add a “makerspace” and classrooms for the new School of Design and Creative Technologies — a move intended to increase student enrollment and traffic at the library, which has seen a drop in circulation and visitors.
The Fine Arts Library is housed in the Doty Fine Arts Building. Although officials identified some materials to be moved to another floor, more than 75,000 books, music scores, CDs, DVDs and other items were sent to off-site storage facilities.
There are three storage facilities, with a fourth in the works, at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, several miles from the UT-Austin campus. In addition, the Joint Library Facility at Texas A&M University’s Riverside campus houses materials from UT, Texas A&M and other public universities around the state.
Library staff aims to retrieve reserved materials from the Pickle Campus in 48 to 72 hours, but retrieval from the Joint Library Facility can run longer because of its distance, said library spokesman Travis Willmann. Palaima, however, said the wait periods have been as long as 18 days.
Students and faculty decried the loss of research and teaching resources as well as the College of Fine Arts’ failure to consult with them before repurposing the library space, according to past news reports. In December, College of Fine Arts Dean Doug Dempster appointed a task force to explore possibilities for managing the collection on the fifth floor. In April, after the task force reported its findings, Dempster and UT Vice Provost Lorraine Haricombe recommended that the rest of the materials not be removed.
Although that’s some comfort to students like Zoe Cagan, a music performance junior, the damage has been done. She recalled a time when she was looking for a woodwind quintet score, a piece she called a “staple in the repertoire,” but the library didn’t have it. “Some of us who knew what (the library) was like before can’t speak too highly about it because a lot of the stuff is gone,” she said. “I feel like now people are kind of discouraged from actually going and trying to find stuff.
“This whole situation has been so taxing and exhausting. Like, what on earth is going on?”
Willmann said the first storage facility opened in the late 1990s because the university wasn’t building new spaces for libraries on campus. Although libraries have been renovated over the years — such as the McKinney Engineering Library, which closed in fall 2013 and reopened in January in a new engineering building — the newest library building is the Perry-Castañeda Library. It opened in 1977.
The Perry-Castañeda Library has undergone renovations since 2015, with the addition of classrooms, a media lab, the University Writing Center and study areas for science, technology, engineeringand math students. Willmann said such updates are made based on student demand.
Circulation at all UT-Austin libraries dropped 87 percent between 2007 and 2017, from 1.9 million to about 240,000, according to data from the Association of Research Libraries. An analysis of gate counts at the UT-Austin libraries between the 2007-2008 and 2016-2017 academic years shows that a few libraries, including PCL, experienced increases in the number of visitors, while some maintained steady numbers. A few libraries, such as the Fine Arts Library, saw decreases in visitors. Other libraries have incomplete data because of malfunctions in their gate counters or because they were closed for renovations.
“Everything’s data-driven,” Willmann said. “We can look at circulation stats to see if books are being used or not, and if there’s an area of the library where those … books aren’t being used as much. You sort of target those spaces for redevelopment into spaces that students can use for collaborative study or new technologies.”
A slump in circulation is to be expected as more materials become digitized and students turn to online resources, but Loriene Roy, a UT library sciences professor, pointed out that circulation is a “soft figure” that doesn’t present the whole picture of library use.
“Circulation is the old standby measure of use, but it doesn’t reflect everything that happens,” Roy said. “You do have a measure for what’s exiting (the library), but you don’t have a measure for what we call ‘in-house use.’ People browse. Seeing something next to each other in the shelves informs you. It doesn’t mean you’re taking any of that home, but you’re seeing and you’re learning about authors and titles, things you might not know about.”
That was the principal argument made by advocates of the Fine Arts Library, including Palaima. Officials saw low circulation as a problem that needed to be solved, he said, but there are certain books that no one checks out: “Would you take out the Encyclopedia Britannica? Probably not. You’d go in and you take a look at it and you put it back. And that’s how many of the books in our classics library are used.”
Palaima believes that Dempster should have assembled a task force in 2015, before materials were removed in preparation for construction, and that the task force should have assessed ways to reinsert library materials.
“Nobody is opposing creating a space for new technologies,” Palaima said. “Nobody’s saying the Foundry’s not a good idea. It is a good idea, but you can’t destroy a library to set up something like a Foundry.”
Cagan fears that future students will become complacent with the Fine Arts Library’s limited on-site collection compared to libraries at other research universities, and that the reduced access to resources will hurt student success.
“I feel like it’ll be harder just for us to be informed artists, informed anything, if we’re trying to get a job, if we’re trying to get into a graduate program,” Cagan said. “It’ll ultimately hurt the students who are trying to succeed with these resources that aren’t there.”