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Blithe Milks: No one has explained how removing books will save money

By Opinion,


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This commentary is by Blithe Milks, an adjunct professor of English at Castleton State University.

Dear VTDigger and its readers, I know that you all have received quite an earful from staff, faculty, students, alumni and concerned citizens about the changes announced in February about the Vermont State Colleges (including the switch to an all-digital library system).

But let me share my concerns about what will happen if the books are actually removed. The books, millions of already invested dollars, will wind up in the recycling plant. Having spoken with my friends and colleagues in the local community, the local libraries and schools do not have the space, time, or money to take in even fractions of our collection.

All of the purged books and journals will be shredded and pulped and we will not be able to recall them should we change our minds. The money has already been spent; we will literally be throwing away millions of dollars' worth of resources we already own outright.

While the administration has backpedaled slightly, offering to work with the faculty and librarians to determine which physical books are essential, how would they know? Our students read and study from far more books than they check out. Curriculums change. Syllabuses change with regularity.

Without the entire physical collection, the serendipitous discovery of just the right resource one didn't even know to look for will be lost. I have never found a resource online to answer a question that I wasn't expressly looking for, but I discovered my thesis topic browsing the stacks.

I mentioned in a forum Feb. 10 that we educate educators. How can we in good conscience send new teachers into the world without educating them on how to navigate real books? Imagine kindergarten teachers with no experience with picture books. Imagine high school teachers who can't help their students do anything but digital research.

Public schools in Vermont are not going to go entirely digital anytime soon. If we want to retain our students and our new teachers in the state of Vermont, we must teach them how to teach in Vermont.

Going entirely digital in this brave little state is a difficult ask. We do not have high-speed internet in every town. We do not have wealthy enough students to ensure that they each have a device on which to study. This decision does not make fiscal sense if we are to remain non-discriminatory. What are we to say? "I'm sorry your laptop broke. I guess you are going to have to read for this literature course in the study-space, if you can find an open computer."

No one seems to remember the students in Newport gathering at the McDonald’s parking lot to access its Wi-Fi during the lockdown of 2020. Without the books in the library, professors will not be able to put books on reserve, either.

The idea of InterLibrary loan was tossed out and quickly batted down. If we don't have physical books to offer other libraries, they will not lend theirs to us.

We will never own any of our digital versions of any of the books, journals, or periodicals. We can only lease them. And each campus counts as its own entity for leasing purposes. So, each campus will need its own agreements with countless providers. And each campus will have to decide how many copies of any subscription they will need.

I don't want to think about the expense if each of my students decided to use the eLibrary for the texts for my class. Most public libraries have licenses for five copies of a popular book at a time. I have 50 students who would all need access every semester. And I change my syllabus every semester based on new releases. I'm going to be very expensive.

We will be able to guarantee our students access only to what our providers find profitable. Access to entire backlogs of journals could be taken offline at the whim of a profit-seeking board of directors.

The costs of leasing electronic data is increasing exponentially, as more servers must be bought and maintained. They also have to pay people to purge the less profitable titles to make more room — like on your laptop, when you have to move all your photos to an external drive or delete them. Deleting is always easier and cheaper.

In talking with my students, I heard some of their fears. They are worth contemplating:

  • They fear that without books signaling "Library," the new study space will become loud and not conducive to studying. Beyond keeping the students in quiet mode, the books themselves dampen sounds.
  • Two of my students cannot be on screens for extended periods for medical reasons. Last semester, I had five. Between learning differences, screen-induced migraines, concussions, chronic dry eye, and just plain screen-fatigue, it is cruel to ask them to do all of their reading on screens. Not to mention, in the medical and learning difference cases, discriminatory and probably an ADA violation.
  • As educators, we must remember that each student is entitled to the least restrictive environment for learning. Removing paper as an option is restrictive. And, as many of them have mentioned, they did online learning. They hated it. That's why they are here instead of at an online institution. Online is a great option to have available; it shouldn't be the only option.
  • Beyond the loss of all but two librarians on the Castleton campus, 20 students will lose their work-study positions. Since those positions are classified as community oriented (because the community does use the library), I fear that we may lose our federal funding for work-study, since 7% of the positions must be community-centered to meet the federal requirement.
  • My students are concerned about being laughingstocks in higher education. They did the research. Of the schools cited in the announcement, only two have actually gone entirely digital with their libraries: one is an online-only school and the other is a satellite of a much larger university that has no intention of removing its books. My students fear for their futures in graduate school or workforce so much that a third of them are contemplating transferring. The two who transferred in this semester both regret their decision.

I have other concerns, mostly the widespread lack of faith in the new administration. Data from a poorly conducted informal survey was cited for this radical decision. A MonkeySurvey survey , written by a Castleton librarian (who will be losing her job) instead of the staff of our former nationally recognized Polling Institute, was sent out to the students after 5 p.m. the Friday before finals. Many students claim to have never seen it. No one knew it would be of dire importance.

Of the over 5,400 students it was sent to, 526 responded. Of the fewer than 10% who responded, a third of them are distance learners who never need to set foot on campus.

If this is the data that was used to make this sweeping decision, I have no faith that the new university administration cares for the students. If the goal is to shutter the schools, they are off to a stunning start.

The reason given, over and over again, is that this is to save money. They do not explain how it will save money. The librarians have to be offered positions elsewhere in the college system at their current rate of pay. The technology has to be upgraded. Many more computers will have to be purchased and maintained. Constant renewal of multiple subscriptions to countless publishers, into perpetuity at ever-increasing prices for ever-narrowing resources, will have to be monitored to ensure we retain the titles we need. The Vermont Library Association has confirmed that electronic libraries are more costly to establish and retain than a physical collection.

No one has explained how removing a single book will save any money at all.

Nothing is set in stone. The Dumpsters have not yet arrived. The librarians are still at their posts. Please, as an educator, an alumna, and Vermonter, I beg: Please don't take the books from the library.

Edited for length.

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Read the story on VTDigger here: Blithe Milks: No one has explained how removing books will save money .

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