Save the books: UVA undergrads object to possible book removal

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Fourth-year English major Vanessa Braganza worries the renovations to Alderman will permanently remove a large amount of Alderman’s collections to an off-site location. Photo by Amy Jackson Fourth-year English major Vanessa Braganza worries the renovations to Alderman will permanently remove a large amount of Alderman’s collections to an off-site location. Photo by Amy Jackson

In this digital age, many speculate that printed literature is on the decline, with Kindles, iPhone apps and Google Books able to supply previously printed materials. However, this view of a digitized reading future holds little weight at the University of Virginia, where faculty and students alike are fighting to “save the books” at Alderman Library.

Alderman Library, opened in 1938, has not been renovated since the late ’60s, and plans are currently in the works for a renovation that would address health and safety issues, such as modernizing the fire suppression systems, as well as plumbing and electrical. In the wake of these proposed renovations, some UVA students fear that Alderman Library’s roughly 2.5 million books, government documents and newspapers are in danger.

Fourth-year English major Vanessa Braganza worries the renovations to Alderman will permanently remove a large amount of Alderman’s collections to an off-site location.

“It’s been proposed that only 800,000 of the 2 million books here might be left,” Braganza says. “And although this is only speculation, it’s an alarming speculation to even consider.”

Braganza, whose petition to Keep the Books in Alderman has garnered more than 580 undergraduate signatures, says that removing books from Alderman would undermine one of the primary functions of a library.

“The library is several things,” Braganza says. “It’s the equivalent of a laboratory to a researcher. It’s a sort of museum where you can come and touch things. And while the book as artifact is only one facet of the library, the primary function of a library is to come and browse the books.”

Former university president and current English professor John Casteen agrees that the physicality of a book is important, especially for incoming professors.

“There were people who came to UVA specifically because we had a spectacular collection and who would build upon these special kinds of collections,” Casteen says. “[The renovation] has huge implications for how we teach our courses and how we attract new faculty with the strength of our collections.”

Interim university librarian Martha Sites says the students’ and faculty members’ fear of a large-scale removal of books from Alderman Library is relatively unfounded.

“The thing that I just can’t overstate is that there is no plan yet,” Sites says, adding that the library renovations are still “working documents” and that nothing will be confirmed until the state legislature approves or denies funding for the project (full renovations could cost as much as $160 million). “When people speculate about [the renovations],” Sites says, “it can create a kind of hysteria that is just not necessary when an open dialogue is forthcoming.”

Sites also says rumors have arisen that Alderman will digitize its books and remove the physical copies, which she says is not part of the plans. According to Sites, 78 percent of Alderman’s collections are under copyright, making it nearly impossible to digitize these works and make them publicly available online, thus requiring them to stay where they are.

Even if these books were available online, Braganza emphasizes how different searching online is from searching in person.

“How often do you go in search of a book and you look around you in the stacks and find related things, or you find that the book you wanted was not what you thought it would be?” Braganza asks, adding that the ability to browse through the stacks is paramount to student research.

Sites does say that books will have to be removed temporarily for renovations to take place. She points to a corroded piece of plumbing as evidence that these renovations are necessary.

In order to protect the books from dirt and dust, plans are in the works to move them to a storage library on Ivy Road, where students would be able to check them out in person or request a book, which would be shuttled to Grounds that day.

Above all, Sites says that the staff of Alderman Library has no intention of permanently removing large numbers of books.

“I can’t tell you how bothered some of our staff were at the assumption that librarians don’t care about books,” Sites says. “That’s why most of our people are here —because we do care about books.”

By the numbers:

Volumes in Alderman (including books, documents and serials): 2.5 million

Volumes added per year: 35,000

Seats in Alderman (for studying purposes): 1,447

Estimated cost for necessary renovations: Between $40 million and $100 million

Estimated cost for full renovations (including restoration of certain spaces): $160 million