NEW HAVEN, Conn. — During the past few years, Yale University has seen more than its fair share of student activism. In 2015, protests over issues of race and discrimination rocked the campus for weeks. After President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, more than 1,000 students rallied in opposition to the administration’s immigration policies. Over the past week, students have protested the shooting of an unarmed black woman by local police.
But another recent cause celebre in New Haven was notably geekier: Save the books.
At a forum in January, Yale’s top librarian outlined a seemingly uncontroversial proposal: to relocate tens of thousands of books from the heart of the undergraduate library to make space for additional seating. The librarian, Susan Gibbons, said declining circulation and the recent increase in the size of the student body justified the plan, which would reduce the print holdings in Bass Library from 150,000 books to 40,000.
The proposal prompted an angry response from students, who framed the move as an assault on “book culture” that would make it harder to browse research materials. Others worried about having to find other study spaces with the library closed for renovations during the fall 2019 semester.
Nearly 1,000 students signed up on social media to participate in a “browse-in,” vowing to check out everything from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” to Dr. Seuss’s “The Sneetches” to show university administrators that young people still value the printed word. “Join La Résistance,” one student exhorted his peers on Facebook.
In response to the uproar, Gibbons in February announced an updated renovation plan under which the library would keep 61,000 print volumes rather than 40,000. A new timeline for the project guaranteed the library would reopen before the start of the fall semester. Gibbons also circulated an Excel spreadsheet for students and professors to use to indicate which volumes they want to keep in the library.
The generational debate between book lovers and screen lovers is hardly new. Across the country, young people have been at the forefront of a national shift from books to digital alternatives, as aging bibliophiles have bemoaned the disappearance of the printed word. At Yale, the tables turned: Administrators were the ones pushing to trade book stacks for couches, while students came to the defense of traditional libraries.
“It’s astonishing to me how many people care about using books in the shelves,” said Leland Stange, a senior humanities major from Oklahoma who spearheaded the student movement. “I’ve been personally approached by dozens of students who give these wonderful personal stories about how important it is to them to have physical space for browsing.”
Under Gibbons’s plan, the books in Bass — some of which are duplicates or have not been checked out in years — would move to the upper floors of the nearby Sterling Memorial Library, where they would remain accessible to students. Undergraduates interviewed, however, said poor lighting makes browsing the Sterling shelves difficult and the densely packed stacks can intimidate underclassmen who have never embarked on a major research project.
The book transfer also would displace tens of thousands of books in Sterling, including a set of volumes that contains historic gems such as a collection of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays annotated by Benjamin Silliman, one of the first American science professors and the namesake of an undergraduate residence across the street from Bass Library. Many of those books would go to an off-campus storage facility. Though students can request books kept there (typically with no more than a day’s wait), they cannot browse them.
Stange, who worked in public libraries while growing up in Tulsa, wrote an op-ed in the Yale Daily News in February excoriating the proposed book reduction, which he argued would “legitimize an anti-book culture within University life.” A self-described “Luddite,” Stange had to be persuaded to allow students to sign an online version of a petition criticizing the proposal, rather than require handwritten signatures on paper.
His movement quickly garnered support among a large swath of Yale’s undergraduates, from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors who hardly ever check out books to budding historians who frequent the library stacks.
“The potential that libraries represent for students is the ability to go to a random shelf, pick up a random book and realize that there’s this whole new world that exists,” said Felipe Pires, a junior from Brazil majoring in computer science. “That’s not how the Web works — that’s not how hyperlinks work.”
As a sophomore, Jackson Leipzig, a history and philosophy major from Beverly Hills, Calif., browsed the library stacks while researching a paper on plant and flower motifs in Sandro Botticelli’s paintings. Leipzig’s professor, Timothy Barringer, required every student in his art-history survey course to use print sources exclusively for their final papers.
“It might seem like the default is to first go online and see what’s available on the given topic you’re trying to study,” said Leipzig, now a senior. “But at least for me, that experience definitely indicated that there’s all sorts of scholarly questions that come to the front of your mind when you’re really engaging with the library as a physical space that holds physical books.”
Leslie Brisman, a longtime English professor who criticized the relocation plan in a Yale Daily News op-ed, said Yale faculty ought to reconsider the somewhat outdated offerings in Bass Library, whose collection originally was designed to present a carefully curated selection of academic materials for undergraduates to peruse. That process should not entail eliminating large numbers of books from the library, he said.
In response to criticism of her proposal, Gibbons, the university librarian, stressed that a love of books will remain central to the library’s culture.
“We are balancing two important competing needs: ample study space for a growing student body and a vital, engaging print collection immediately located in that space,” she said. “We are using this opportunity to reevaluate and renew the collection, and I am optimistic that the post-renovation collection will be stronger and more relevant to the undergraduate curriculum than the current, larger collection.”
According to Julie Todaro, dean of library services at Austin Community College and a former president of the American Library Association, Yale’s renovation plan fits into a broader trend. Throughout the country, Todaro said, librarians are grappling with how to preserve book culture while ensuring knowledge — whether in print or digital form — is widely accessible.
“Our profession is built on expertise of knowing where’s the best place to put [information] given limited resources and limited space,” she said.
One dilemma confronting just about every library, she added, is the question of seats vs. stacks. Todaro said Yale has done an admirable job negotiating that balance. Stange, meanwhile, said he still believes Yale should keep more books in Bass Library.
“Reading printed material creates a deeper level of engagement with a subject than any screen can ever produce,” Stange said. “The deep focus that comes with that should be a hallmark of the university, especially at a place like Yale.”