Univ. closes biology, math libraries due to budget cuts, reduced traffic

| Staff Reporter

In light of departmental budget cuts, Washington University closed its biology and math libraries this summer, reflecting a nationwide trend in universities to cut satellite libraries that are becoming increasingly obsolete as more materials go online.

The biology and math libraries, previously on the second floor of Rebstock Hall and the lower level of Cupples I, respectively, were targeted because their diminishing traffic did not justify their continued existence, Dean of Libraries Shirley Baker said. Their collections are now housed in Olin Library’s B Level.

Currently, study spaces in those two locations remain open to students, and the biology and math departments have yet to determine the future use of the space.

Slashing the salaries of two employees provided the bulk of the savings. Both of the assistant librarians whose positions were eliminated were re-hired in open positions at the Olin and the chemistry libraries.

Other savings came from eliminating some journal subscriptions, copy machines and other equipment. While computers are still available in the former biology library, printing is not.
The administration has not confirmed any plans to close more satellite libraries, though it remains a possibility if the economy stays poor, said Ruth Lewis, biology and math librarian, who now has an office in Olin.

“What scares me is if we have to cut another 12 percent next year,” Lewis said. “That’s going to be really hard.”

According to Baker, the decision depends primarily on how departmental libraries are used. The biology

The biology library, above, and the math library closed last summer due to budget cuts and decreasing foot traffic. (Matt Mitgang | Student Life)

The biology library, above, and the math library closed last summer due to budget cuts and decreasing foot traffic. (Matt Mitgang | Student Life)

library was already losing foot traffic dramatically because access to biology journals, previously one of the most important functions of the biology library, is now available online.

The art and architecture library, on the other hand, is unlikely to ever close since print materials are critical for those disciplines.

The chemistry library houses journals that are only available in print, often due to high prices, said Chris Goodman, formerly the assistant math librarian and now the chemistry and engineering assistant librarian.

“Our strategic plan includes downsizing and perhaps even consolidating some libraries because the materials are going electronic and the use is happening elsewhere,” Baker said. “Biology especially had become incredibly quiet.”

The University is not alone in its decision to close satellite libraries. Schools like Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are also getting rid of departmental libraries. Others, however, are slower to move, like Harvard, which has 96 libraries.

The widespread use of digital materials is changing the structure of libraries dramatically, pushing them to consolidate and weed out their print materials when online copies become available.
Olin has adapted by creating a digital library team to push the process along. Its staff has also started to use Google Books to give students access to books they cannot find otherwise. In addition, a new catalog will be unveiled this week with more sophisticated search tools, tag clouds and other digitally focused features.

“When we talk about where the libraries will be as we finish our Plan for Excellence, it will probably be fewer physical libraries” Baker said. “The digital collections will grow dramatically; we may even remove some print from the main campus.”

Lewis expressed disappointment with the recent decisions.
“I’ve had a few complaints. People just aren’t generally happy about the decision,” Lewis said. “A few faculty are going to miss 24/7 access—being able to get a journal at 7 a.m. on a Sunday.”
The biology department has been using electronic resources for years, so it happily adapted to the change, Baker said.

“Except for the loss of a piece of [their] identity,” she added. “It’s your departmental library.”

The change may be harsher for the math department, where members still like to browse through books. Graduate students will suffer the most, according to Goodman.
“There’s the occasional undergraduate, but they never really spent much time there,” Goodman said.

All the same resources, however, are still available, even if they are in different formats or locations. Also, the change in structure was designed to match the way faculty and students previously used the departmental library.

“There are some things that will come out of it—undergrads can now get biology books until 2 in the morning now,” Lewis said.

  • Ronnie

    The loss of physical books and libraries is a travesty. For centuries, books have been the primary source of knowledge transfer and acquisition. The barriers to entry for publishing a book ensure a base level of integrity that cannot be found on the Internet or through Google.

    While I agree that electronic availability of books is convenient, there is a downside. When the medium for information access is “instant” and convenient, readers have tendency to go for breadth without depth, covering many sources (because it is so easy) without reading critically into each of them.

  • luisa

    It is sad to see how the bankers and the rich people was help with billion of dollars but they are closing the libraries, I just turn of the tv and 3 libraries here in Los Angeles were close too, it is scary what its happening, closing libraries is a crime for the knowledge and future of our country.

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