Vermont State University made a stunning announcement in February, they would remove all books from their library for the coming year. Vermont State University will be a combination of three colleges, Northern Vermont University, Castleton University, and Vermont Technical College. They are scheduled to merge into the new entity on July 1. As part of the streamlining process, they announced they would remove all physical books from the library, leaving only digital books. The physical books are to be distributed to community members and others, or recycled if unwanted.
In his announcement, Dr. Parwinder Grewal, who will assume the presidency of the new university on July 1, explained the purpose was to “provide greater equity of access to our library services.” He noted a decline in circulation of the physical materials even after enrollment increased post-pandemic. The libraries themselves will not be closed, though storage requirements will obviously disappear and access to materials can be from anywhere. They will be used for such things as study spaces or other needs identified. Some positions will be eliminated, likely around ten.
The reaction to this directive came quickly. The officials must have expected some pushback from professors and maybe some other older folks, but it is less certain that they expected a negative response from students. After all, students live in a computerized digital world. They have no need for physical books or objects, no interactive need for live people, just social media. There are no physical books in the Metaverse. And yet at a forum two days later students showed up, some carrying signs, to raise their objections. It turns out they actually like real, tangible books. That does not mean they want them to replace digital media, they just one some of each to be available. As one sign pointed out, in obvious reference to the Covid lockdown period, “We tried online learning. We hated it.”
Among the objections raised by students is that they get tired of having to learn everything from a screen, that computer monitors are difficult for some handicapped students, and that librarians help them when they don't understanding something, leaving Google as their only “replacement.” Administrators quickly apologized, but for how the plan was presented, not the plan itself. The news was sent out by email, and they apologized for that presentation, but then reiterated that the plan would stand as is, no changes.
A month later, the administrators had a slight change of heart. They presented what they called a “Revised Plan.” They will retain around 30,000 of the 300,000 physical books they now have, but the rest will still be given away or recycled. Along with special collections and archives, they will retain “volumes that have been accessed or checked out between January 1, 2018 and December 31, 2022 and have been deemed academically valuable by the academic department chairs and the Provost. Additional volumes, vital to academic programs, may also be retained based on academic need as determined by the Provost or his designee in coordination with the academic department chairs.” Additionally, they “will maintain a small 'Neighborhood Library' collection of popular, casual, reading books, as well as children’s books in the library with a 'take-a-book, leave a book' honor system” (for local community members, not college students).
In justifying their decision, the administration said that only 3.94% of their books were accessed in 2018-2019, the last pre-Pandemic year, fewer since. Only 9.48% were accessed in the past five years. They said 58% of their books have never been accessed. They described “accessed” as being checked out or “used in the library.” It is not clear whether this includes people taking a book off a shelf for research without ever checking it out or notifying a librarian (perhaps books could only be looked through by asking a librarian to bring it to the student). They said that physical books only receive 4% of “total annual volume usage” while consuming approximately 30% of the library budget. That presumably includes the salaries of the librarians and assistants who will be let go.
The Boston Globe quoted Castleton biology professor and President of the Faculty Assembly as saying, “How can you defend a higher education institution without books?” He added, “Once you get rid of materials they are gone.” The decision may make perfect sense on straight textual and financial considerations, but books to many people are still something more than digital impulses on a monitor. Some people will understand that, other won't. Years ago, vinyl records were replaced by audio tapes, which were in turn replaced by CDs. Today, vinyl records outsell both of those. Sure, today streaming services are the biggest source of music, at least for now, but vinyl has experienced a resurgence, especially among the young. Newer isn't always better.
A few days ago, Vermont State University totally reversed course, saying the books will stay, the library will not change, and the library staff will not lose their jobs. This follows the unexpected resignation of President Parwinder Grewal. It was announced by interim president Mike Smith. This plan had been opposed by many students and staff, as well as the Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Association. We thank John Greenberg of The Bear Bookshop for providing this update.