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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)

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, 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)

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)

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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Sarah E. Bond

Sarah E. Bond is associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. She blogs on antiquity and digital humanities, and is the author of Trade...

7 replies on “The Disappearance of Books Threatens to Erode Fine Arts Libraries”

  1. How devastating that there’s a trend of libraries doing away with books.

    I can attest to the importance of the “visceral act of discovery in the stacks.” (I love this phrase, Ms. Bond.) Some of the most thought-provoking and artistically inspiring books I’ve ever read were found by accident as I was strolling through the stacks on my way to fetch other books. The joy of just browsing books based on interesting titles and covers is, I fear, a joy that students will not know in 20-30 years.

  2. The unfortunate truth is that books are not accessed anywhere near as much as they were before the internet. Many libraries are merely responding to demand. The need for digital media access is much greater.

  3. You ask, “how can we continue to make the case for browsable libraries dedicated to fine arts?” or, I assume, any other subject. The answer is simple: use the books that are there. Check them out, or at least lift them off the shelf and use them, and then put them on a reshelving cart. Libraries keep track of what gets used — so don’t think you’re being helpful if you reshelve books yourself. You actually may be contributing to the collection’s demise, by making it appear that the books are unused.

    Despite all the public lamenting of how “the books are going away,” the truth is, they’re not. Books that get used get to stay, or get replaced when they wear out. Books that no one is using are a waste of space, and they get removed to make way for new books, or for services or spaces that the library’s patrons are demanding.

    I work in a public library, and we routinely weed books that are outdated, worn out, or simply unused. We don’t have space to keep them; we free up the space for new books that people actually want to read, or sometimes for new space configurations that the public is asking for. The needs of a research library, such as the Fine Arts Library, are different. Such libraries should and do keep books that are in less demand. But no library has infinite space; no library owns, or can keep, every book ever printed on a subject. The best way to make sure a library collection stays is to use that collection.

    1. Thank you very much for this informative response. I learned a lot and will try and encourage people to do this in the future.

  4. I think that Abigail Sharp has nailed it “physically holding and flipping through print makes all the difference in learning and retention.”

    Forty-eight years ago I commented to a university art librarian that books would one day be done away with in libraries. I had no idea about PDAs, or digital storage, although there was microfiche. I only wish I had been wrong. While I sometimes look something up on line, and I appreciate the speed of finding what I’m looking for, there is no substitute for finding what I didn’t *know* I was looking for by browsing bookshelves, or “flipping through” the pages of a physical, hand-held book.

    All too often ‘management’ has little understanding or no understanding of what actually goes on ‘in the trenches’, so to speak. And, of course, it’s a lot easier to ‘relocate’ books than it is to do the hard work of ‘managing’, i.e., actually finding the funds for new facilities.

    p.s. Just *read* ‘management’s’ statements. They’re full of nothing but empty managementese — a dreadful language that clouds the mind.

  5. Indiana University has lost its dedicated Fine Arts Library to an unlikely foe – the Eskenazi Museum of Art (formerly the IU Art Museum). The museum began a two-year renovation program last spring with the goal of modernizing the facilities and improving dedicated conservation and education spaces. Unfortunately, the plan also involves the assumption of the Fine Arts Library. Technically a part of the museum building, the Fine Arts Library and a small lobby area/exhibition space are located where the museum and the Fine Arts building converge on the second floor. To the best of my knowledge, IU is neither deaccessioning titles nor moving art history texts to offsite storage. Former FAL volumes will simply be moved a couple of blocks away to the main campus library, Wells Library. However, I consider the loss of the FAL to be a huge loss to the department. Besides, the upper floors of Wells Library are generally unpleasant.

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