Although thousands of books, journals, and other analog materials were previously at risk of being removed from the Fine Arts Library at the University of Texas at Austin, it was announced on Friday that many of these changes would not come to fruition. This was due in large part to the public efforts of many on campus and within the Austin arts community. For the better part of a year, students, faculty, staff, librarians, museum professionals, artists, and many members of the public worked tirelessly to protest further removal of books and materials, after discovering that, over the summer of 2017, around 75,000 items from the Fine Arts Library had been removed to off-site facilities. The rest of the items held by the library — which predominantly occupied the fifth floor of the Doty Fine Arts Building — also appeared to be at risk of removal.
Since Hyperallergic first reported on the removal of books and other analog materials from the Fine Arts Library (FAL) at the University of Texas at Austin — first in December and then in March — there has been a radical change of course. On April 2, the Fine Arts Library Task Force published a lengthy report suggesting a number of next steps for the FAL that would preserve books within the library. In response to this report, and in line with the subsequent recommendations provided by Dean Douglas Dempster and Vice Provost Lorraine Haricombe, UT Provost and Executive Vice President Maurie McInnis decided to preserve the current holdings of the Fine Arts Library, issuing a public memorandum a few days later.
The new plan for the FAL will preserve the books on the fifth floor of the Doty Fine Arts Building and aim to reduce retrieval times for materials requested from off-site library facilities. A renovation for the fifth floor has been approved that will improve wifi and workspaces, while also implementing more efficient shelving for more analog materials. Moreover, a standing advisory council for the library comprised of faculty, students and fine arts staff will be formed. McInnis notes the need for collective rather than unilateral decision-making going forward: “I believe this is a vital step moving forward to ensure that conversations about the FAL and its collections occur in a collaborative, productive, and continuous manner.” A university-wide task force will also be formed that will contribute to shaping the objectives and vision of the UT Libraries. It will begin work in the fall of 2018.
For his part, Dean Dempster has publicly supported and co-signed the task force’s report, while still noting the challenges ahead. In an email to Hyperallergic, he wrote:
As a humanist who surrounds himself with books, I’m truly pleased that we will continue to have an excellent library in the very heart of the College of Fine Arts. We remain, however, greatly challenged to accommodate the classroom needs of hundreds of new students entering our college with a passion for their studies in design, digital arts, and other emerging fields. … We’re certainly reminded once again that universities struggle to balance traditional disciplines and programs, relying on traditional educational and research methods, with the growing mandate to be progressive and relevant for the future benefit of students and society.
In comments to Hyperallergic, undergraduate Communications and Art History major Abigail Sharp remarked on what the struggle over the Fine Arts Library has taught her. She came to value the act of serendipitous discovery within the stacks and became closer with the faculty and staff at UT-Austin by working alongside them for the same cause: “I learned that transparent communication and genuine collaboration between faculty and students ultimately leads to a stronger morale and network of support throughout an entire college.” The campaign to save the library depended on students like Sharp for help with social media and activism. It also relied on the design skills of undergraduates like artist Logan Larsen, who designed the zines, buttons, and posters that canvassed the campus.
Faculty activists were also quick to point out the significant role played by UT-Austin students in the campaign to save the FAL over the last year — and to reiterate that this was not an overnight victory. Stephennie Mulder, Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at UT-Austin, noted in a public post:
many people worked so hard on this, for well over a year — from senior faculty, to staff, to students, to prominent faculty at institutions outside UT-Austin, to journalists at numerous media outlets. Our students were just amazing, particularly the undergraduates — please erase all stereotypes you have in your brain about technology-obsessed millennials staring mindlessly at their screens. These students understand the value of permanent physical library collections and view them as unique and precious resources that technology can augment, but cannot replace.
During intense public fora, undergraduates like art history major Grace Zhang even moderated debates between the administration and the public. Although millennials may be derided by out-of-touch columnists as passive, avocado toast-eaters, today’s youth are in reality an engaged, activist generation. They are making their views heard and they are doing it online and in the streets.
Over the weekend, the UT Antiquities Action held its annual conference. There, the collective addressed the theme of “Erasing, Defacing, Replacing: The Coercion & Control of Things.” As they note, whether through warfare, policy shifts, or gentrification, cultural erasure is a reality that alters our lives: “We humans invest feelings in the things we make. It stands to reason, then, that the deliberate act of suppressing, destroying, or altering things of cultural value is an inherently political and radically disruptive act.” Among the Antiquities Action group and many others, there are fears that displacement of analog holdings in favor of digital texts and trendy makerspaces will lead to erasures within libraries as well. Keeping books within the FAL preserves analog texts and maintains that library as a space of public access to cultural objects.
This week is National Library Week, a time when patrons and librarians across the country are asked to reflect on the roles of libraries in our day-to-day lives. From UT-Austin to ancient Egypt, readers have been thinking about these issues for millennia. In her book, The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World, classicist Yun Lee Too noted the prevailing idea among the people of the ancient Mediterranean that books could act as a salve for the soul. The sacred library built by the Egyptian king Osymandyas (Rameses II) at Thebes is alleged to have had the phrase Ψυχῆς ἰατρεῖον (“healing place of the soul”) inscribed upon it. Places like Cornell University, where they are in fact increasing books within the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library, they are upholding the ancient belief in the power of the book. Former Cornell University Librarian Anne R. Kenney remarked on Cornell’s concerted efforts to maintain the digital and physical spaces for books: “Both physical objects and digital capabilities are key to scholarship and creativity now and into the future.”
Many within the arts community at UT-Austin hope that the compromises reached regarding the books within the Fine Arts Library will strengthen the library’s role at the center of arts research, inspiration, and interaction within the UT community on campus. The ordeal will perhaps also serve as a future model for how students, faculty, staff, artists, museums professionals, and the public at other institutions can work together effectively in order to preserve libraries.