Library talk enters planning discussions

Stacks of books in the rare book collection of CcCabe are currently being protected from potential leakage by plastic tarps, a solution the library staff had implemented initially as a temporary measure but has now become a permanent fixture on the third floor. (Allegra Pocinki/The Phoenix)

The next edition of the Swarthmore Strategic Directions Draft Plan, sent for approval to the Board of Managers this week, contains far more language about Swarthmore’s library system than the previous one, which contained the word “library” once, in reference to funding for databases to be housed there. Students, faculty members and library staff had expressed concern that the McCabe Library, which they consistently described as “the heart of the campus,” did not receive more attention from the Strategic Planning committee, pointing to potential improvements in McCabe’s infrastructure, accessibility and learning spaces that they said would bring the library into the 21st century.

The library-related language in the new version of the Draft Plan will be located in a new prologue section as well as in a section on the importance of “spaces,” which cites the library as one of the most important spaces on campus. The Plan will also present a vision of a new library, according to Garikai Campbell ’90, Associate Vice President for Planning. “The plan we have sent to the Board for approval this week makes clear the need to re-envision our libraries, McCabe most specifically, in order to provide space that allows a full spectrum of collaborative work, individual study, and engagement with material and information,” said Campbell in an email.

While the vision presented in the new Draft Plan jibes with that of the library staff, the new version will not specifically lay out a plan for renovation, leaving some of the concerns they and others have voiced unaddressed for the time being. “The library is not [in the draft plan] in specific, but as the very best way to realize the principles the plan commits to,” said Timothy Burke, History Professor and a member of the Strategic Planning Council.

Concerns include infrastructural issues which have undermined some collections in McCabe, notably the Peace Collection and the rare books. The library is also running out of storage space, forcing librarians to store parts of Swarthmore’s Peace Collection, among other resources, at a University of Pennsylvania facility. For every book that comes into the Peace Collection, another must be sent to remote storage. Though materials can be requested from remote storage, that process is not the same as searching for a book on the shelf.

Chris Geissler ’13, a Linguistics and Religion double major, expressed concern that these issues were not being addressed. “The Peace Collection, the world-renowned Peace Collection, is relegated to a dark corner and is completely unknown to so many students, and the librarians have resorted to covering the rare books with plastic tarps,” he said. “Academic matters, such as adequate facilities for the library system, ought to be a priority of Swarthmore as a whole and therefore prominent in the Draft Plan.”

The constant search for more shelf space in McCabe has cut into open areas in the library. The skylight room in the north-west corner of the third floor, once a student lounge, is now full of bookshelves; the areas around the main stairwell have also been changed from lounge spaces into storage. In 2005, compact shelving was installed in the basement, making room for more growth. In spite of these efforts, librarians say they are bumping up against the library’s storage capacity again.

McCabe’s stacks, or bookshelves, are also situated close together, which can hinder accessibility. “A new building would bring us more in line with current standards of accessibility,” said Luciano Martínez, Assistant Professor, Coordinator of Latin American Studies and Spanish Section Head. “It would require that we space stacks more, which would be extremely useful to people who need to access the stacks and who now may be limited.”

The latest Draft Plan’s vision of an updated library system reflects the vision of Peggy Seiden, Swarthmore’s College Librarian, who sees her vision as grounds for a library renovation. “The way people use libraries and do research has changed significantly, especially since the advent of online information resources,” she said. “This library is just not designed to facilitate the way people engage and do research.”

Librarians have noticed an increase in collaborative work by students in the library. This phenomenon, along with the rise of multimedia technology, demands an increased variety of study spaces at McCabe.

Seiden envisions group study spaces, individual carrels, and “media spaces” rife with technology, a vision consistent with the models of modern libraries being built around the country at colleges like Williams, which published a video of its president outlining plans for a new library, espousing a vision similar to Seiden’s and the Draft Plan’s.

Seiden had expressed particular concern about the paucity of language about the library in the soon-to-be-replaced edition of the Draft Plan. “If we don’t change the library … I’ve seen it happen where the library becomes marginalized, becomes moribund, and I think the library should very much be at the heart of what this institution is about,” Seiden said.

Pamela Harris, Outreach and Instruction Librarian, offered a simpler reason to update the library. “[The library] was built to be a book box,” she said. “And that’s not what we need anymore.”

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