Book purge? Alderman renovation foments faculty fear

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Where once librarians were guardians of the book, UVA English professor David Vander Meulen now sees them as threats to the printed tome.
Photo: Martyn Kyle Where once librarians were guardians of the book, UVA English professor David Vander Meulen now sees them as threats to the printed tome. Photo: Martyn Kyle

The University of Virginia’s main research library, built in 1938, has never had a major renovation. And when funding for such a project comes through, some faculty fear 2 million of Alderman’s 3 million books will be shipped to the Ivy Stacks, off-campus storage on Old Ivy Road, never to return.

English professor David Vander Meulen rang the alarm at an April 17 lecture attended by former UVA president John Casteen, and accused the library staff of being secretive about plans that he believes will gut Alderman of its printed books, leaving digital versions with “irreversible consequences” for scholars.

Library rep Chris Ruotolo, who attended the lecture, said nothing is going on until $100 million in funding comes through, and faculty will be involved in renovation plans.

Vander Meulen is not reassured.

He’s the editor for the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, which was founded in 1947 to promote interest in books, manuscripts and the physical embodiment of written works. For him and other scholars, books are artifacts and “pictures of them” through digitization are not the same.

He held up the September 12, 2001, issue of the London newspaper, The Times, and compared it to a much smaller copy printed from microfilm, which he called “an impoverishment” of the original.

“The elimination of printed material has become an obsession in the librarian world,” Vander Meulen said.

He pointed to a September Cavalier Daily story about an undergraduate student survey on Alderman. More open seating seemed to be a priority for students, and one said she’d take out the stacks to have more open seating. “More chairs,” said Vander Meulen, to laughter from his scholarly audience.

He also took issue with former University Librarian Karin Wittenborg’s Cav Daily comment that even though students overwhelmingly used electronic materials, there was a place for print in the future library because books provide “an aura of gravitas.”

He quoted another library catchphrase: “Alderman was built as a home for books. Now it will be a home for scholars.”

Said Vander Meulen, “That’s silly.”

The most dramatic part of his presentation was an 1880 edition of Poems of Wordsworth edited by Matthew Arnold that had been taken from Alderman for digitization. The spine had been cut off and the bindings slashed. Vander Meulen tossed the leaves on a table.

“It’s been guillotined to be preserved,” he said about another de-spined, digitized book.

Wittenborg, who retired in December, was known for her innovations, such as adding a cafe to Alderman. She also shipped off 450,000 books from the library’s collection to Google to be digitized, according to a release. She declined to comment for this article.

Vander Meulen described her as a friend with whom he disagrees, and he repeated the Wittenborgism that is her motto: “Drive it like you stole it.”

Why not, he asked, “Drive it like someone entrusted it to you?”

Martha Sites, interim university librarian, said she wasn’t surprised by Vander Meulen’s alarm about the future of books in Alderman. “That’s his passion—the book as a physical object. His fear is that the library doesn’t appreciate them, but we believe books are important to scholarship.”

Sites disputed his assertion that faculty has been kept in the dark, and said the library had hosted at least 10 focus groups. “To say there’s been no faculty involvement would not be accurate,” she said.

And the mangled books Vander Meulen displayed, said Sites, were a one-time mistake from a circa 2000 experiment with digitalization. “People didn’t know the vendor was going to de-spine books,” she said. “We canceled their contract and we’ve never done that again.”

Vander Meulen doesn’t buy the one-time mistake defense, and said an 1855 copy of Benjamin Peirce’s A System of Analytic Mechanics, which can sell for $1,500, was fine in 2005, and then it, too, lost its spine.

Sites said there’s a lot of discussion ahead. If the renovation goes forward, books will have to be moved out of Alderman, but she stressed, “There’s no intention to discard or remove books. They’ll be accessible.”

The Ivy Stacks aren’t that far away, and she said a shuttle service and a reading room are possibilities on the table to be talked about.

But Vander Meulen fears if books are shipped to Ivy Stacks, the joy of browsing library shelves becomes a thing of the past.

Storing books remotely is a national research library trend, according to Ann Campion Riley, president-elect of the Association of College and Research Libraries.

“Books are absolutely not doomed,” she said, “but we do see different use patterns than we saw 10 years ago.” Whether libraries buy new books in electronic or print format varies by discipline, she said, with the sciences leaning toward the former and humanities toward the latter.

Aware that traces of the past could disappear if portions of Alderman’s collection is warehoused, another English prof, Andrew Stauffer, and the library have obtained a $221,000 grant to catalogue the hidden artifacts in pre-1923 books from original readers, including their annotations, inscriptions, marginalia and inserts.

“Part of the issue is finding common ground with librarians and scholars,” said Stauffer. “I don’t want to see battle lines drawn, but we do want to have these conversations. We often have different perspectives.”

 Correction 5/4/2015: The grant to document hidden artifacts was made jointly to the library and Stauffer.