Miller Library at Colby College | via

At Colby College, students and professors are protesting the school’s decision to remove 170,000 books from the campus library.  The books, which are being shipped to an off-campus storage facility, were removed as part of a two-phase renovation of Colby’s Miller Library.  The renovation, which cost the school $8.7 million, was designed to create more space in the library—the school claims it will add 150 seats—as well as to reflect the increasingly digitized nature of the library’s resources.  Some students and professors, however, are unhappy that their library’s on-campus collection is now smaller by 170,000 books.  A group of professors submitted three different petitions protesting the removal and a student-led petition has received seventy-six signatures.  Speaking for the opposition, Rob Weisbrot, a history professor at Colby, said, “While we laud the impressive advances in digitizing resources, these should supplement, not substitute, for keeping physical texts in the main library building.”  As it stands, Colby has removed nearly half of its collection from the main library building, leaving the students and faculty with a facility that, to quote Colby’s student newspaper, more closely resembles an “airplane hanger than a library.” 

The renovation of Miller Library is reminiscent of the renovation plans for the New York Public Library, announced in 2008 as the “Central Library Plan.” At the core of the plan is the proposal to dismantle the seven stories of book stacks that now sit beneath the main reading room and to place the three million volumes they currently hold in storage.  Under the initial proposal, 1.3 million of those volumes were to be held in an offsite facility near Princeton, but public backlash has ensured that the majority of the books will, if the plan is implemented, be housed under Bryant Park near the library. 

In the December issue of The New Criterion, Michael J. Lewis wrote about the Central Library Plan, or CLP as he called it.  “In the breathless and upbeat public relations campaign on behalf of the CLP,” Lewis wrote, “everything is presented as an augmentation or enhancement of what the library already is and does.  It is not stated, even obliquely or winkingly, that it represents a fundamental rethinking of what a library is.” Lying behind the decision to remove books from libraries, Lewis notes, is the tacit assumption that the digital revolution has made actual books obsolete.  If things can be accessed digitally, the argument seems to go, then there is no need to waste so much valuable space on books.  This assumption, as Lewis explains, is incredibly shortsighted:  A research library is only as good as the sum of its parts.  As Lewis explained, “a library with four million books at hand is considerably more than twice as good as one with two million.”  In the case of Colby College, a library with 170,000 fewer books is significantly worse off than it was before.