Why you should care about the threat to UW-Madison’s libraries

Digitization can’t replace the vital process of browsing a physical collection.

Digitization can’t replace the vital process of browsing a physical collection. | Photos by Molly Wallace

Walking through one of UW Madison’s 40-odd libraries’ shelves is pure catharsis. The sheer resources librarians marshal to maintain these vast records of human thought embolden my own efforts as a writer. No one could even come close to reading everything collected in the hundreds of miles of books, from the special collections of 15th-century alchemy handbooks to the shelves full of scholars writing about author Henry James. So much went into researching, composing, and finally organizing these books and myriad other materials for the next person to make use of that labor. An academic library, with its mazes and study cages, feels like something undeniably good.

This essay was conceived this spring, when it appeared the Kohler Art Library, which shares a building with the Chazen Museum of Art, was closing and consolidating its books with several other campus libraries, and Memorial Library would have its onsite collection significantly reduced. I was just finishing up an article about a MMoCA art exhibit when I learned the State Journal had reported that the library integral to my research would be absorbed and moving half of its books to a Verona storage facility, where it could take days for students and faculty to access books, and where a non-student (me) would have no access.


According to the consultants quoted in the Journal article advocating for this shift, libraries “catch up” to other institutions by reducing the focus on print collections and increasing space dedicated to work areas. The consultants also argue for allocating more time in librarians’ schedules to educate users on software.

A week later, a petition circulated advocating for the continued existence of the physical library and for greater faculty input on the plans. It collected thousands of UW faculty and student signatures, mostly in the humanities, with some support from the STEM world. Arts and humanities professors were particularly upset: The collection is so big that professors regularly make discoveries of texts that are already collected but not yet known in academic circles.

The petition’s organizers, who also organized a March 16 public forum, made strong arguments in favor of onsite, physical access to books. The writers of the petition declared victory, and say they have “reason to believe” that Kohler and Memorial libraries will keep a significant amount of the collection on campus.

“Our protest was well received,” says Peter Russella, a graduate student in the French Department who participated as a liaison between graduate students and library groups. “The people in power and the people who made these decisions realized that we were overlooked.”

While the faculty are optimistic about the future of their input and their access to books, some compromise is coming between digital demands and print traditions. The future of UW’s libraries, an integral part of its legacy, is still uncertain.

The plan that sparked the petition appears to be the false start of the upper level university library staff, who sees the digitization of library assets and expansion of collaborative work spaces as the future of campus libraries. This plan mostly grapples with use of space, and would require removal of a significant chunk of the university’s millions of books to make room for things like (much-needed) bathrooms, computers, sitting space and makerspaces where students can use creative software. According to outgoing Vice Provost for Libraries Edward Van Gemert, this addresses the ways students are already using the library.

“A critical aspect of creating these recommendations was data collection and analysis,” writes Van Gemert in a letter that kicks off a consultant’s report. His letter makes repeated claims that the current model is failing. The report asserts academics tend to work across their specialties in groups that need spaces to meet, and undergraduates especially appreciate the work areas. The embrace of newer digital databases and collaborative work areas at the expense of print collections is being made at universities across the nation, and recently sputtered out at the University of Texas-Austin after a similar faculty revolt. 

Those who imagine the future of libraries as primarily digital see the public spaces as internet oases and work areas, and cast aside print collections as the nostalgic tradition of older scholars. The argument goes that a vast majority of people interact with the library through the internet, and access to the digitized copies of books is far more popular than the physical copies. There are also accessibility problems in traditional libraries like Memorial, with thin gaps between high shelves.

The claims of digital popularity are dubious, as Anne Villa, a graduate advisor French professor who was highly involved in coordinating the faculty response, explained to me.

Villa gives the example of a digitized dictionary. The consultant’s plan counts as a use every single time a person accesses the dictionary to look at a word. But a word-addicted researcher who checks out the dictionary and reads the whole thing counts as a single use. In other words, Russella and Villa argue, the numbers ignore the depth of research individuals undertake, equating clicks with someone who spends hours browsing a physical collection or engaging deeply with a book.

“We wanted to help preserve the university’s great strengths,” says Villa. “Print collections are a treasure that need to be properly preserved.”

Villa also pointed out that the French department was so involved with the response because foreign language texts are already woefully under-digitized, as foreign languages present challenges to non-expert digitizers, like unique characters. Digital versions also often miss marginalia (a fancy word for notes in margins, which there is an ongoing plan to document) in addition to footnotes or introductions. Sometimes only one edition of a text is saved when there are multiple different versions that an expert in that text should take into account.


The report has no guarantees about the massive digitization effort that would be required to make the digital collection a replacement to the physical collection.

While there are benefits to the expanded access of digital texts and makerspaces, there are also benefits unique to print books. There is evidence (which professors often remind students at the beginning of every semester) that reading on a screen means less retention of information. In addition, at least while the technology is still being developed, it is literally just harder to read on a screen, to mark up digital text with notes, and to find your place again after leaving the text.

As Jonathan Senchyne, an assistant professor in the School of Information who signed the petition says, “The paper book has proven to be a remarkably efficient and cost-efficient information storage device for millenia.”

For these reasons, when I write an article about, say, monochrome painting, which has the additional problem of images scattered around the texts that need to be analyzed, I go and sit in the total quiet of Kohler Art Library for a few hours, instead of searching online for a hastily created digital version of a rare and specialized book.

Perhaps the greatest loss of a reduced onsite collection is the ability to browse. What I heard over and over again talking to humanities researchers was that the act of discovery may be lost. This sounds sentimental, but is actually an integral part of research.

Molly Wallace.

Molly Wallace.

“If you want to write about a topic, and you plan to take out a certain book, getting to the section where the book is held means you’ll find tons of books that you wouldn’t have known existed,” says Senchyne, who is also director of the Center of the History of Print and Digital Culture. “If you can find one book that’s relevant by going to the stacks, you can find 20 or 30 more. You can do that in digital catalogues too, but it’s much more immediately fast and efficient to just go to the library.”

I first learned this strategy when I worked as a research assistant for an English professor. She would tell me to go to a certain point in the Dewey Decimal System, for example, on the theory of fascist leaders’ charisma, and literally grab everything.

“Everything?” I asked.

“Everything,” she said.

Reading every single book available to you on a topic is one way to develop a professional working knowledge of the subject. In a digital catalogue of a collection, this blanket approach is replaced by algorithms and keyword searches. While this is quicker and sufficient for many users, it’s possible to finish what seemed like an expansive search without even realizing something you missed exists.

There is inevitable loss when books are moved from one place to another en masse. There will simply be books that fall off the shelf or linger in miscategorization forever. The horror.

Unfortunately, UW is under several key points of stress. Governor Scott Walker understands higher education as a mill that churns out engineers and yuppies, which is a philosophical problem of the national liberal arts scene that’s accompanied by millions of dollars in Wisconsin budget cuts.

“In the ’60’s and ’70’s, we could buy whatever we wanted,” says Van Gemert. “Those days are gone. A lot of the motivation of the plan is to continue to provide top-notch library services given the climate. The fundamentals of organizing, providing access and preserving books remain, but how we do it is significantly different.”

The climate Gemert refers to has already led to some distinguished faculty leaving the university for private universities, like my English professor employer.

Senchyne reminded me of an infamous Joe Biden quote, which in turn claims to Joe Biden Sr., who supposedly, eloquently said, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

“At Madison, and elsewhere around the state, given dwindling resources and budget starving of university, we end up with false choices,” Senchyne explains, arguing that with enough investment the UW could have the library of the future that the Vice Provost envisions without removing the physical books.

Senchyne referred me to library renovations of his alma mater, Cornell, as an example of a best-case scenario, where the university has retained its physical collection while upgrading its digital services to become a contemporary, fully accessible library. But Cornell, which Wisconsin is supposed to regard as a peer, is a private university, with huge endowments. The University of Wisconsin is in lockstep with the state (though the portion of its budget the state actually contributes has been declining for years), and the people who control it, the politically appointed regents have signalled again and again that they want to smash the historic tradition of a liberal arts education until all that remains is an engineering school with business entrepreneurs hanging on.

On August 1, there will  be a new vice provost of libraries, Lisa Carter. Rusella and Villa are confident that the question of access to physical books will be on the top of her agenda. But, given the upcoming gubernatorial election, which will dictate the makeup of the board of regents, there are questions hanging in the air.

What is for sure is that the removal of books is one step in downgrading UW-Madison’s standing as a world-class university, an ongoing phenomenon which the city of Madison itself should confront. Local journalists and interested citizens (including myself) will have a reduced ability to continue expanding their knowledge, more world class scholars will leave, and the good old Wisconsin Idea will ring even more hollow. While the faculty has achieved a small victory by inserting themselves into future plans, it is yet to be seen if the university can withstand the antagonism of our currently anti-intellectual state government.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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