On February 7, the Vermont State Colleges System (VSCS), which includes Castleton University, announced that it would transition its libraries to an “all-digital” format, effective July 1, 2023. The announcement can be read here:
Pushback from students, faculty, and the surrounding communities was harsh and immediate. Social media exploded with stinging criticisms of the plan. Confrontational meetings among administrators, faculty, and students were held on the various campuses.
The Reporter joins in many of those criticisms and has asked our local librarians to weigh in as well.
The plan is to eliminate physical circulation of materials and replace paper-based books with digital versions. While VSCS tries hard to justify the decision with appeals to “what students want today”—24/7 access to material online, for example—it doesn’t deny that the decision is also being taken with finances in mind.
Digital books don’t require physical space. They can be shared by thousands of students across multiple campuses. They can be updated electronically. Existing library spaces can be repurposed. Digital libraries can be accessed at any time by anyone with a password and an internet connection. Digital books are never “already checked out.” All these things may be true. Ultimately, however, most of these considerations may also benefit the school more than the student.
Sophie Marks, the Youth and Circulation Librarian at the Maclure Library in Pittsford, stated in an email to The Reporter,
“Someone who has never been inside a library might assume that the function is to simply acquire and lend books. Particularly in a university context, this could hardly be more reductive. Students need a peaceful physical space specifically for studying and research, with stacks that they can learn to navigate themselves. Additionally, the barrier to asking for help is much lower when a circulation or reference desk is present in front of you, with a person whose dedicated job is to assist you. This is without even considering the matters of books that cannot be accessed online, books that need to be loaned from other libraries, archival and special collections materials, or students who find it difficult to read exclusively on screens.”
Molly Kennedy, Director of the Brandon Free Public Library, also noted in a separate email to The Reporter,
“While I heartily believe there is a vital place for digital collections in all libraries, I firmly maintain it needs to be alongside the physical resources. In tandem, these seemingly divergent ways of gathering information and installing it into our brains is above reproach. Without one or the other, however, the accessibility of the entire collection is diminished.
The digital explosion of information can create the badly mistaken impression that libraries are becoming obsolete and dispensable. Sometimes this fallacy is used to justify cutting library services, claiming that libraries are only a “perk,” a nice accessory to learning but nonessential.
Quite the contrary. Schools and communities need qualified people to serve as librarians now more than ever. They need diverse, relevant collections and librarians to guide them. In an age when it is easy to drown in information, librarians hold the key to information literacy.”
At what cost to learning will the savings to VSCS be realized? Part of the joy of a library is the freedom to browse the stacks at one’s leisure. You discover new topics, new ideas, new authors. You can pick up a book and flip through it faster than you can click through pages online. It’s the same delight as one might have wandering through a flea market or a sporting-goods store: you might not even know that you want something until you see it. Often when you go to a particularly well-stocked store, you enter on a particular mission but leave with more than you anticipated. An all-digital format emphasizes the mission-search rather than the curiosity-browse.
For many people, however, the convenience of 24/7 access to every title is all that matters. They may be the kind of “shoppers” who don’t browse or dawdle. They enter the library for a reason and leave when the mission is accomplished. But is that the experience we want to impose on everyone?
That may well be a romantic concern, though. On a practical level, the forced transition to digital reading will disadvantage, if not exclude, a sizable number of people who don’t perform well when asked to absorb information from a screen. This is a complaint raised by many people in response to VSCS’s announcement. After two years of online-learning during the pandemic, we don’t have to speculate: we know now that some people will just stop engaging if forced to spend hours in front of a screen.
There is also the issue of student privacy. In a physical library, any student can enter the stacks and read any book without necessarily checking it out or leaving any evidence that they ever looked at it. When all one’s actions can be tracked online, how will that inhibit students’ intellectual freedom? If students want to browse books on controversial topics, how will VSCS ensure that not even library staff will be able to see what searches have been done or which books have been looked at by whom?
Will VSCS’s plan put lower-income students at an inherent disadvantage? Will all students need access to the internet and suitable devices at home in order to use this new library system? Again, the pandemic showed us that access to the internet can still not be taken for granted in many communities.
These are just a few of the valid objections to the proposal.
VSCS’s announcement about the library system was accompanied by an announcement about changes to its athletic system as well. Some campuses will see their varsity teams replaced by club teams, meaning that the campuses will no longer pay to support high-level traveling teams. Clearly, the financial pain is being felt across the board and VSCS is taking dramatic steps to minimize its expenses.
Yet, VSCS seemed blindsided by the response to its announcements. VCSC President Parwinder Grewal went so far as to say, “One thing that we learned from this is to socialize any big decisions before they are announced, so that people have opportunity to participate.”
Perhaps VSCS’s assumptions about “what students want” weren’t as solid as it thought. In light of the universally negative reaction, one can still hope that VSCS will reverse course.