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 VOL. 23, NO. 11DECEMBER 5, 1997 


Library Woes Aired at Senate Hearing


 BY TOM MATHEWSON

Faculty estrangement from the Columbia libraries was the theme of a hearing conducted by the Senate Libraries Committee on Nov. 18. About 50 people—professors, students and members of the libraries and academic computing staffs—attended the open meeting.

  Sen. William Harris, professor of history and chairman of the Libraries Committee, served as moderator, and focused on the findings of an external review team chaired by Billy Frye of Emory University. Harris said the Frye report praised the staff, but identified serious failings in the library system, blaming them on years of budget cuts imposed by the Columbia administration.

  Several speakers outlined consequences of the budget problems, including the prolonging of the job of computerizing Columbia's catalogue until 2006 and the disintegration of precious collections. The most common complaint was the difficulty of finding books in the stacks. Three directors of branch libraries—Angela Giral of Avery, Amy Heinrich of Starr East Asian, and Jean Ashton of Rare Books and Manuscripts—acknowledged that they were often coping with larger workloads with staffs that had shrunk by as much as a third. Ashton said that a number of the special collections were competitive in Columbia's peer group of elite American libraries, "but comparing staffs and acquisitions budgets, we fell miserably to the bottom."

  Prof. Mark von Hagen, director of the Harriman Institute, stressed the plight of the Bakmeteff Collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. He read from an external review that cited the "scandalous neglect" of the Bakmeteff, and concluded that if Columbia was "unwilling to handle the collection in a manner that recognizes its value, it should consider sending the materials elsewhere."

  Classics Professor Roger Bagnall commented on the action plan that the administration was preparing to address library problems. He said the plan focused mainly on academic computing, with a substantial increase in the AcIS operating budget to address salary problems discussed in the Frye report. He said the libraries would get a more modest increase, focused on the worthy aim of putting the stacks in order. But he said the action plan did not address the shortage of reference librarians in Butler Library, and neither the Frye report nor the action plan grasped the overall impact of nearly a decade of "budgetary attrition," with severely reduced branch library staffs and a shortage of bibliographers.

  English Professor Andrew Delbanco said he rarely uses the libraries any more because the problems are too overwhelming. He said faculty have been shielded from the problems by the availability of research assistants, excellent nearby libraries, and interlibrary loan. Also masking the plight of the libraries, he said, is the recent decline of the importance of scholarship in the humanities. "I think it's a passing phase. Scholarship will come back," he said. "But will it come back at Columbia? I don't think so, at least not to the degree we'd like, because we don't have the library system to support it as we once did."

  Sen. Joan Ferrante, whose field is medieval literature, was more optimistic about the degree of faculty concern, despite a small turnout at the hearing, but Bagnall was not. "I believe everyone on the humanities faculty is concerned with the library and deeply committed to having something done about it," Ferrante said. Bagnall cited three intellectual trends to explain his estimate that only a quarter of the Arts and Sciences faculty cared seriously about the libraries: a growing preoccupation with the present, the preference for criticism over scholarship mentioned by Delbanco and an emphasis on public policy.

  Amy Heinrich of the Starr Library cautioned against taking an adversarial stance on the libraries, saying that improving them required cooperation throughout the Columbia community.

  A transcript of the hearing will be available in the Senate office.






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