May 14, 2018

The University of Texas library puts books in storage to make way for makers


Last month, I had the chance to attend the Urban Librarians Conference here in Brooklyn. As I listened to librarians discuss the changing spaces they manage, they talked about more than just computer labs and the sprawl of the internet. Some libraries host knitting circles, offer up their spaces to political events, and do much more.

Not all library patrons, though, are enjoying the change from endless columns of books. As students at the University of Texas are learning, the “right to browse” may be disappearing.

As Claire McInerny reports for NPR, the Fine Arts Library at UT Austin has decided to move books into storage to make space for more current technology. 3D printers, laser cutters, VR headsets, and computers for programming these devices have occupied floor area that was until recently reserved for stacks.

And as an added shot to the eye, the tech is front-and-center, on the main floor:

To make room, librarians removed tens of thousands of books and other materials that hadn’t been checked out in years. The items were put into storage — some across town, some a few hours away. Students can still request them; it just might take a few days to get them back to the library.

That wait time—and the inability to chance upon a source or periodical that changes one’s perspective—are what students seem to be rallying against. The administrator who made the decision to unshelve the books was met at a demonstration this spring by chants of “Our books, our say, you can’t take our books away.”

It now seems that UT is responding to the outcry, approving a renovation of the library to include more shelf space. But they haven’t backed away from the tech-oriented shift in gears. It’s a problem that many libraries are facing as they’re caught between warring priorities.

The silver lining of this story is that UT is responding in the first place. Libraries are temples of knowledge, but they’re still ultimately accountable to the demands of their patrons.



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.