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The Disappearance of Books Threatens to Erode Fine Arts Libraries

Two major public universities have recently moved to radically downsize or entirely relocate their fine arts libraries, which is in keeping with broader trends of libraries doing away with books.

Posters outside the Doty Fine Arts Building at the University of Texas at Austin (photo by and courtesy Abigail Sharp)
Posters outside the Doty Fine Arts Building at the University of Texas at Austin (photo by and courtesy Abigail Sharp)

Public libraries are experiencing a surge in use that few could have predicted even a decade ago. This renaissance has renewed interest in the library as a space for access to books, to technology, and to art. But libraries are no longer solely filled with books. Many are shifting to become multi-use and more digitally driven spaces. Yet as libraries create access to a digital future, the books that have traditionally inhabited them are being displaced at an alarming rate. This leaves many asking: Does acceptance of digital resources mean that the books must go? And what is at stake when artists, art historians, students, and the public can no longer engage in the act of browsing the stacks as part of the process of creating and researching art?

While the philosophical debate over what a library should be rages across the country and beyond, some institutions are shifting from philosophy to action, removing books to make way for other initiatives. At the University of Texas at Austin, around 75,000 fine arts books, journals, and other materials have already been moved by the College of Fine Arts and the University of Texas Libraries, as Hyperallergic reported in December. Many of the removed materials now reside in an off-site location near UT’s J.J. Pickle Research Campus or the Texas A&M joint library storage facility.

At many libraries, the prime real estate occupied by books is being requisitioned to make way for new digital humanities initiatives like virtual reality experiences or “Makerspaces” cordoned off for 3D printing. In the case of UT-Austin’s Fine Arts Library, books and other analog materials were removed to accommodate a new space called The Foundry. As the mission page for the collaborative space notes, this is a joint initiative of the University of Texas Libraries and the College of Fine Arts meant to be available to all UT students, faculty, and staff. Yet the success of such 3D printing labs is often precarious and dubious. As many librarians and digital humanists have pointed out, installing a Makerspace in your library is not a panacea.

A 3D-printed version of the Temple of Vesta in Rome from within the Copy + Paste 3D printing lab in the architecture gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A 3D-printed version of the Temple of Vesta in Rome from within the Copy + Paste 3D printing lab in the architecture gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The most effective 3D printing labs in fact work in tandem with visible art — original or reproduced — in order to show students the relationship between objects and their replicated form. This is certainly the case at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s new Copy + Paste makerspace embedded in the Hall of Architecture. However, removing books, special collections, and other primary materials from a library space often removes essential sources of inspiration from students’ immediate view.

At UT-Austin, the curators of the Blanton Museum of Art have expressed their displeasure with the current and future plans for the Fine Arts Library, noting in a letter to the dean of the College of Fine Arts, Doug Dempster: “Having timely access to the collection of the Fine Arts Library is essential to our mission of providing intellectually rigorous and engaging museum content to our audiences at the University and in the wider community.” The Blanton Museum, the Fine Arts Library, and academic departments at UT-Austin work in tandem to inform students and the general public about fine art.

"The Foundry" space in the Fine Arts Library at UT-Austin (photo by and courtesy Rabun Taylor)
“The Foundry” space in the Fine Arts Library at UT-Austin (photo by and courtesy Rabun Taylor)

The Foundry, it turns out, was only the first stage in a plan that has developed into a complete takeover of the Fine Arts Library. In 2017, an entire floor of books was swept away almost overnight, without consultation of faculty or students, to make way for a new high-tech design program, the School of Design and Creative Technologies. Dean Dempster offered a glimpse of the vision for this new design school in a talk at the 2018 SXSW Interactive Conference, suggesting that “fine” arts is an anachronism and should yield primacy to more entrepreneurial, STEM-oriented creative arts such as video game design.

Unable to find space to accommodate the School of Design and Creative Technologies, or to raise capital for a new building, Dempster seized the fourth floor of the Fine Arts Library last summer. According to numerous sources Hyperallergic spoke to, he then announced both verbally and in emails his intention to relocate the rest of the library’s collection — an estimated 200,000 items — and appropriate the fifth and largest floor of the Doty Building for the nascent school. This was a bridge too far for faculty and students, who have organized a movement to save what remains of the Fine Arts Library. In the meantime, all plans for the library’s future have been put on hold and a working group led by UT Libraries is evaluating alternative solutions to the current impasse.

A poster protesting the downsizing of UT-Austin's Fine Arts Library in the E. William Doty Fine Arts Building (photo by and courtesy Abigail Sharp)
A poster protesting the downsizing of UT-Austin’s Fine Arts Library in the E. William Doty Fine Arts Building (photo by and courtesy Abigail Sharp)

The University of Texas at Austin isn’t the only large public university planning to do away with its art library. The University of Wisconsin Library System has recently released a Facilities Master Plan, which proposes to eliminate the Kohler Art Library by 2030. Like UT-Austin, UW-Madison is planning to slash the overall number of books available on campus, in this case to 15% of the total collection. The Kohler Art Library’s holdings would eventually be reduced by 50%, with the other half moved off-site. UW-Madison’s Vice Provost for Libraries and University Librarian, Edward V. Van Gemert, echoes UT-Austin Dean Dempster’s reasoning for the reduction in browsable books, saying: “The vision of the plan is to strengthen the role of campus libraries in the academic pursuits of the University by providing the needed spaces and services at strategic locations across campus in alignment with campus planning.”

Across the country, many university libraries are engaged in a book purge. This has meant reassessing the use of library spaces and consolidating book holdings in a bid to attract more visitors. In states like Missouri and Kansas, libraries have begun to spend more and more of their annual budgets on digital subscriptions and spaces for people, rather than on the acquisition of physical books. As in Austin and Madison, such shifts have often been met with resistance. At Syracuse University in New York, there was a faculty uproar over the proposed movement of books to a far-away warehouse. The struggle ultimately resulted in the university building a 20,000-square-foot storage facility nearby for over 1 million books — guaranteeing next-business-day delivery.

With space at a premium and books ever-multiplying, how can we continue to make the case for browsable libraries dedicated to fine arts on major research campuses across the United States? University of Texas sophomore Abigail Sharp (a Corporate Communication major with a minor in Art History who is working on a certificate in Museum Studies) perhaps put it best. “The numerous irrelevant, algorithmically selected results from an online database do not compare to the titles found so close to one another when wandering the stacks of the library,” she told me. “Some of the best research and learning materials I’ve come across have been analog, and physically holding and flipping through print makes all the difference in learning and retention. There is a way to incorporate the new design major with the current Fine Arts Library and Building, and that does not require relocation of analog resources.”

Before there was 3D printing, there were plaster casts. The Blanton Museum of Art has a number of classical casts that professors and curators teach with in tandem with the Fine Arts Library’s reserves. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Before there was 3D printing, there were plaster casts. The Blanton Museum of Art has a number of classical casts that professors and curators teach with in tandem with the Fine Arts Library’s reserves. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Students and professors on campus at the University of Texas at Austin have not accepted the initial phases of the School of Design and Creative Technologies takeover without pushback and are working to halt the final phase of Dean Dempster’s plan. A petition on Change.org already has thousands of signatures from local, national, and international scholars and students hoping to save the Fine Arts Library, and the campus has been fully canvassed with posters and activists in the past few weeks. On Monday, the UT-Austin Faculty Council voted to adopt a resolution protesting Dean Dempster’s actions, while students picketed and leafleted the campus in protest of the plan.

Many might ask why it is so important to save a few books that can simply be recalled from storage if one really needs them. However, to many at the University of Texas, the University of Wisconsin, and other large universities across the country, this fight is about maintaining the close links between research, art, and the visceral act of discovery in the stacks. The digital future should indeed be embraced, but books are a technology that should be just as readily available as a 3D printer or VR headset to the artists of tomorrow.

Update, 3/28/2018: According to a UT-Austin spokesperson and the school’s FAQ page on the issue, there is now no current plan to close the Fine Arts Library or remove its materials from the Doty Fine Arts Building.

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