Angst over future of Alderman’s books 

University Librarian John Unsworth has not convinced many of his peers that access to research materials will be adequate after Alderman’s renovation is complete. Photo by Dan Addison University Librarian John Unsworth has not convinced many of his peers that access to research materials will be adequate after Alderman’s renovation is complete. Photo by Dan Addison

By Jonathan Haynes

A renovations proposal that could slash more than half the stacks in Alderman Library has provoked a fiery response and over 500 petition signatures from students and faculty, who fear only 40 to 60 percent of the books would return to Alderman when the project is complete in 2023.

Books will be relocated to Clemons Library or warehoused a mile off Grounds at the Ivy Stacks during renovation, anticipated to begin in 2020 if the project is approved by the university’s Board of Visitors in September. The $160 million plan would then go to the General Assembly for funding.

Opposition to the proposal rests on the idea that browsing is essential to research. “When you conduct research, you get as many books as you can and go to their appendices to find other books that have been cited,” says Samuel Dennis, president of the English Students Association at UVA. That means circulation numbers are lower than actual use numbers because people aren’t checking out “a lot of the books they have to use.”

Dennis does not think the planned expansion of the Library Express On-Grounds service, which provides stored or unavailable library materials to faculty, is sufficient. “Ease of access is important when you conduct research, which is incredibly time-consuming,” he says.

University architects have called for Alderman renovations for years, raising concerns about its dated infrastructure, particularly in the stacks, where many of the shelves double as support beams for the ceiling, low ceilings make it impossible to install sprinklers and narrow passageways violate the fire code.

Alderman is also running out of space. When the library was constructed in 1938, with a grant from the Public Works Administration, the university counted 2,000 undergraduate students and under 6,000 when the stacks were added in the 1960s. Now, UVA has almost 17,000 undergrads.

Dennis is aware of the safety concerns. “There’s clearly a reason to renovate the library, he says. “But does that mean that quantity of books would have to leave?”

The Alderman Steering Committee drafted the plan and contracted HBRA, a Chicago-based architectural firm, to design the renovations, which will include sitting wells and compact shelving, motorized stacks that compress and expand with the push of a button, to create more empty space.

But no blueprints are available, and many of the figures provided by the committee have been disputed, including the number of books that will return to Alderman. And earlier this month, University Librarian John Unsworth and HBRA informed the Board of Visitors that specific plans will not be available for the next few months.

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