Features

The End: After 30 years, geography librarian packs up books

Librarian Tom Tews closed the book on the story of his past 30 years operating UW-Madison's Geography Library. The library is closing as part of UW-Madison's Facilities Master Plan.

Image By: Sydney Widell

Where rows of books once rested, shelves are beginning to collect dust in the Science Hall Geography Library. Tom Tews, campus geography librarian, has spent the last three months dismantling the collection he’s maintained over the last 30 years of his career.

The library closed its doors more than half a semester ago, one of the first to be eliminated as part of UW-Madison’s plan to consolidate its library system. Today, at first glance, the space looks roughly the same. The long tables in the reading room are still inviting places to study, and as always, Tews is a familiar presence in his corner office.

But the computers are gone and and most of the furniture has been taken to storage or redistributed across campus. Cardboard boxes full of books are piled on the floor, and in the stacks the shelves are bare.

“It’s been hard to see that what I did for the last 30 years is not going to continue,” Tews said. “Not that it’s right or wrong, it just is.”

Now that the library is closed, Tews divides his time between working the College Library Circulation Desk and curating the digital geography collection. He is logging fewer hours, but he said he is alright with the change.

Tews, who attended UW-Stevens Point as an undergraduate and planned on becoming a high school geography teacher, started at UW-Madison as an assistant in the Geography Library in 1984. The job helped him fund a graduate degree in Library Science.

He then took over as head librarian in 1999 and has held the position ever since.

“I found the two things I liked best — libraries and geography. How could I lose?” he said. “I was just in the right place.”

Tews says what he misses most about the Geography Library are the people. At College Library, where thousands of students may walk past him in a single two-hour shift, he said it is much harder to build relationships with students and faculty.

“Because it was a smaller place, I got to know the regulars — the excellent student community, the geography faculty and the graduate students,” Tews said. “Those were relationships that would start in the library but that would extend beyond it, too.”

The Geography Library is scheduled for a remodel in August, which will transform at least part of it into a conference room for the Geography Department.

Between now and then, Tews will sort through the entire geography collection and determine the fate of hundreds of books and journals that have been housed there since 1929.

Some books will be sent to Memorial Library, more will go to Steenbock Library and others will be transferred to the Geology Library. Books that were rarely used at all will be sent to an off-site storage facility. Some will be recycled, which, Tews said, “is never easy for a librarian to say.”

The space the library occupied was never designed to store books, either. Tews said irregular temperature, sunlight and frequent water leaks made it a challenging place to house the collection.

Even though the library space was often difficult, the Geography Library was unique in terms of the narrow scope and profound depth of its collection, Tews said.

“If someone wanted to go to a place where they could find the most material that deals with geography or was written by geographers, it would have been here,” he said. “Now, they won’t be able to do that. There were no other purly geography libraries in the country.”

The library was a resource, but also a document of intellectual history in its own right — the institutional memory of what Top Universities ranked as one of the leading geography departments in the world.

But in an age when most researchers access information digitally and emphasis on interdisciplinary learning is stressed, maintaining physical, single subject collections like the Geography Library was both archaic and inefficient, Tews said.

“Today it’s not quite as important to have it all in one place,” he said. “The gap is generational, and that’s fine. I’m thankful I was a part of it.”

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