A student in the stacks of the Fine Arts Library at the University of Texas, Austin (courtesy University of Texas Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin)

A student in the stacks of the Fine Arts Library at the University of Texas, Austin (courtesy University of Texas Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin)

Students and faculty at the University of Texas in Austin are concerned that their Fine Arts Library (FAL) will soon be downsized out of existence. Already some 60% of the FAL’s collection materials have been moved to off-campus storage facilities, or about 75,000 fine art books, music scores, and other items, according to the Daily Texan. Over the summer, FAL collection items were cleared from the E. William Doty Building‘s fourth floor, which was then converted to classrooms, study spaces, and workshops for the School of Design and Creative Technologies (SDAT). Now, the fate of another 200,000 items is in limbo, as the UT Austin administration seeks to vacate more space in the Doty Building to make room for the SDAT, according to the Dallas Morning News.

“This fall you informed the faculty in my department that the Fine Arts Library in the Doty Fine Arts Building will close,” Jeffrey Chipps Smith, an art history professor at UT Austin, wrote in a letter addressed to Douglas Dempster, the dean of the College of Fine Arts, in October (and shared with Hyperallergic). “The only questions are when this might happen in the next few years and where the remaining materials might be moved. This news adversely affects the entire university community. In my 38 years of teaching at the University of Texas, I cannot recall faculty and staff morale across the College of Fine Arts being as low as it is now.”

Following outcry over the decision to relocate the remaining and prized collection materials from the fifth floor of the Doty Building, dean Dempster organized a town hall last month where nearly 100 students voiced their opposition to the plan. In response, the dean formed a task force made up of faculty, libraries staff, and students to formulate “a range of scenarios for providing access” to the FAL collection. A spokesperson for the dean told Hyperallergic that the task force has been asked to report back by early April 2018, adding: “There is currently no timeline for decision-making or implementation beyond that.”

A view of the Fine Arts Library at UT Austin showing (courtesy University of Texas Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin)

However, many students and faculty are upset at the changes already made and opposed to any further relocations of FAL materials from the Doty Building. On December 15, they delivered a letter to dean Dempster and other UT Austin administrators signed by nearly 400 alumni, current students, and supporters.

“Paradoxical though it may seem, a key component of digital literacy is recognizing the value of analog resources. This cannot be taught if there are none available,” the letter reads in part. “Without a fully functional, on-site Fine Arts Library, UT-Austin’s College of Fine Art is certain to not only lose high quality faculty and students to this program but also have its primacy in the state compromised.”

According to dean Dempster, the number of materials checked out from the FAL has fallen from 216,000 to less than 100,000 in recent years. FAL collection materials that have already been moved off-site can be retrieved within three business days and, he suggested in a statement, many more off-site items can be made easily accessible through digitization. “Browsing through stacks can be a place of research discovery, as can digital access to millions of remote items,” he wrote. The December 15 letter took issue with this claim in particular.

“Artists, even ‘digital artists,’ carefully consider the materials they use when constructing their works of art,” the letter states. “Digitizing the Fine Arts Library collection will have a deadening and flattening effect on so much rich material. For artists who believe art books to be autonomous works of art in their own right, this move is especially troubling.”

While the fate of the FAL’s collection remains unknown, and will no doubt be shaped at least in part by the findings of the task force, members of the School of Fine Arts community are adamant that its relocation and digitization would be a major blow to the school.

“I teach a huge (400 students) partially online class and I use a great deal of technology in my classrooms, and students love this,” Ann C. Johns, an art history professor at UT Austin who also earned her Ph.D. there, told Hyperallergic. “But we also need our library! My own emphasis is on undergraduate education, and in nearly all of our undergrad courses, the library and the research that takes place there is an integral part of our students’ education.”

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

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