Petition to preserve Alderman Library shelf space garners hundreds of signatures

The petition calls on the Board of Visitors ‘to withhold approval of the planned renovations of Alderman Library until losses to its shelving capacity can be brought much closer to zero’

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Construction for the $160 million dollar renovation project — which includes the protested shelving cuts — is slated to begin in 2020, per approval by the University's Board of Visitors.

Andrew Walsh | Cavalier Daily

A petition was formed, signed and circulated last week by University faculty, students and alumni to protest the reduction of up to almost 70 percent of the physical shelf space in Alderman Library during the library’s upcoming renovation. Renovation plans for Alderman, which include the shelving cuts, will be presented this coming week to the Board of Visitors for approval. 

Alderman Library, built in 1938, has not been renovated since 1987 when an air conditioning system was installed and currently faces concerns with structural soundness and fire safety. The impending renovation plans, per approval by the Board, will cost $160 million and construction is slated to begin in 2020.

According to the appendix of the petition — which is based on information from the library and the architectural firm planning the renovation — the plans propose shelving cuts of between approximately 40 percent to 70 percent in Alderman itself or 30 percent to 60 percent in Alderman and Clemons Libraries combined. 

The range in the percentage of cuts depends upon whether Alderman is refitted with fixed shelving or compact shelving, where shelves move on tracks to open and close aisles and allow for nearly double the print storage capacity.

“I don't believe that a renovated Alderman needs to lose approximately 40%-70% of its shelving,” John Parker, an associate English professor and signatory of the petition, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “I imagine there are ways to keep more shelving in the building, if the planners can be persuaded to do it.”

The 69.8 percent figure in the petition accounts for the maximum possible shelving cut to Alderman library according to the plans. The plans will be presented to the Board of Visitors Buildings and Grounds Committee on Thursday.

The petition to delay approval of the renovations — open to members of the University community including alumni to sign — had acquired over 500 signatories by Sunday afternoon.

The document, addressed to the Board, University President Teresa Sullivan and Vice President and Provost Tom Katsouleas, raises both academic and philosophical concerns. 

“A cut of that magnitude … would directly undermine our core mission as a nationally recognized research university,” the petition reads.

The petition also emphasizes the importance of making a “concerted effort” to establish and cultivate the University’s print collections so that the University can remain a center for “top-tier research.”

The petition was collaboratively written by Parker and John Bugbee, a visiting scholar in the English Department and University alumnus. In an email to The Cavalier Daily, Bugbee said the petition grew out of a series of discussions over the past six months and was passed among other peers for suggestions and review.

Alderman is the main library for the humanities and social sciences at the University. Bugbee said he is greatly concerned about how the proposed cuts will impact humanities research at the University.

“If you deeply cut the amount of shelving in a humanities research library, that’s going to be a library where it’s very hard to do good research,” Bugbee said. “Unlike some other fields, the humanities absolutely depend on ready access to books.”

Bugbee also commented on the significance of the Alderman collection to faculty research in the humanities and how a cut may diminish the University’s appeal to prospective faculty. 

John Unsworth, the dean of Libraries and professor of English at the University — who has played a major role in the renovation planning process and is not a signatory on the petition — said the renovation plans account for most of Alderman’s extensive physical collection.

“We've figured out how to build a beautiful and highly functional building that can hold nearly as many books as Alderman now has, in 40,000 fewer square feet of floor space,” Unsworth said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “The commitment to the physical collections is made … concrete in the construction specifications for the new part of the building, which will allow compact shelving anywhere in the lower four floors.”

Looking towards Alderman’s structural problems addressed by the renovation plans, Unsworth said he is concerned about the safety of the people and books within the aging building.

“We have to get this building fixed: we've had two floods in the stacks just this semester, and the danger of electrical fire is very real,” Unsworth said.

In the renovation plans, books that no longer fit in the Alderman collection will be relocated to the Ivy Stacks — a closed, University-owned, climate-controlled storage facility located on Old Ivy Road near North Grounds. The Ivy Stacks currently houses more than 700,000 volumes of materials from libraries on Grounds, and would double in size under the proposed renovations.

To access books kept in the Ivy Stacks, library patrons have to submit a request and wait one day for delivery to Grounds. Bugbee said this inhibits the spontaneous book discoveries browsing offers users in open stacks.

“There are all sorts of ways in which [relocating books to the Ivy Stacks] would hurt our research capabilities,” Bugbee said. “Probably the most pressing one is that open stacks… [are] basically a laboratory where exciting work in the humanities can happen, something analogous to a chemistry lab.” 

Samuel Nicol, a fourth-year College student and an employee of Alderman Library who signed the petition, also noted his concerns about the Ivy Stacks in an email to The Cavalier Daily. 

“I know that, if … books were in Ivy, I would either be less likely to actually request them because of the hassle and wait, or not know that they were available and miss out on the resources I need to succeed academically,” Nicol said. “Why would I request a book from Ivy if I'm not sure it will actually be helpful in my work?”

Unsworth said it is not worth delaying renovations to the library and the current plans satisfy the concerns raised in the petition.

“It would be dangerous as well as pointless to delay this renovation in order to force a commitment that we have already made in the very design of the proposed new building,” Unsworth said.

This petition is the most recent in a series of public documents written in the past few years arguing to maintain the existing print storage capacity in Alderman. An open letter in February garnered approximately 300 signatures, while a petition created by undergraduates in spring 2016 accrued just over 600 signatures.

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