Controversial calculations: Alderman renovation moves forward

Some UVA professors fear the Alderman Library renovation will seriously hinder research at the university. Photo by Eze Amos Some UVA professors fear the Alderman Library renovation will seriously hinder research at the university. Photo by Eze Amos

Governor Ralph Northam approved the University of Virginia’s proposal to renovate Alderman Library on March 24, sending the $160 million project into development.

The renovation, which has been planned since 2016, involves removing a significant percentage of the library’s books and turning its cramped 10-floor layout into a more spacious five floors to meet modern fire codes. It will also increase the number of entrances and extend a bridge to the adjacent Clemons Library, to make it easier to move between the two buildings.

According to a December statement from UVA Library, over half of the roughly 1.6 million volumes currently housed in Alderman will return when the renovation’s finished, while the remainder will be redistributed to either Clemons or the Ivy Stacks, a storage facility one mile off Grounds.

Faculty and students have raised concerns about the project’s impact on research, with many criticizing the methodology used by Dean of Libraries John Unsworth to calculate the estimated loss of on-site books.

Tensions escalated in spring 2018, after a steering committee predicted an 18 percent reduction in Alderman’s on-site collections, which many professors say is inaccurate. Some, such as UVA professor of English John Bugbee, have estimated the university’s plan will result in a 45 percent reduction.

The dispute boils down to a disagreement over how to calculate the number of books that can fit in a foot of shelving.

Unsworth used an Association of Research Libraries algorithm that calculates 10 books per foot of shelving, while faculty point to academic sources that estimate eight books per foot of shelving is more precise.

In addition, the proposal also incorrectly claims that books will be stored in the basement, which is reserved for processing, says Bugbee. “It also does not account for growth space—the leftover space in a shelf left for new materials.”

In late May, Bugbee and fellow UVA English professor John Parker gathered over 500 signatures opposing the reduction of books at Alderman. Bugbee then relayed his concern that the Board of Visitors was misled them when it approved the project in a November meeting with UVA President Jim Ryan.

“I told them I would be happy if we’re only going to lose 18 percent of books,” Bugbee says, “but we would need to adjust the project to get there.”

He anonymously contacted the Association of Research Libraries, and a spokesperson told him the 10-books-a-foot metric was for a survey, not for any sort of capital project, he says.

Despite that information, Ryan continued to support Unsworth, who says this is the best option he has. “The only alternative that is not an estimate is to fill the library with books and then count them,” Unsworth says. “We’re not in a position to do that yet.”

Books will begin being moved out of Alderman this summer, and the first floor of Clemons will be closed until August, according to the library’s website. Construction will begin in 2020 and be completed in 2023.

Correction: The $160 million cost of the project was inaccurately reported as $305 million in the original story, based on a typo in a press release about the budget from Delegate Steve Landes.

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