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Saturday, November 26, 2022

While UW-Madison’s plan to modernize libraries through mass digitalization is designed to make resources more accessible, could removing physical copies from the campus’ stacks have unexpected consequences?

Searching the stacks through a screen: Memorial Library’s digitization

In the Memorial Library stacks, students find old books, quiet study spaces and campus rumors of an axe murderer. At night it can feel like the start of a B- horror movie, but students have discovered their research and study skills here for 91 years. 

As more students favor internet connections, there is a push towards the digitization of more than three million volumes of books in Memorial Library; manifested in many forms. UW-Madison and libraries across the country have begun digitizing their physical books, and Memorial Library’s crypt of knowledge is in danger of being axed itself.  

“Every once in a while, we’ll do a show of hands. You’ll have juniors and seniors say they’re never actually been inside Memorial Library,” UW-Madison Professor Samuel England said. “This always concerns me.”

Having everything online can curtail discovery and drive learning into predetermined channels, he added.

“[A library] needs to be a place that you can explore and be surprised by what you find on the shelf,” England said. “There are ways of simulating that in an electronic search but I just think that that space needs to be there and it needs to be rich with texts.”

In response, England gives his undergraduate classes at least one assignment that requires them to delve into the stacks at Memorial Library, learn how the library system works and take advantage of the resources librarians can provide. 

He sees it as his personal responsibility to give his students the confidence to research and discover for themselves. 

A master plan in the making

In 2015, UW-Madison — with input from faculty as well as undergraduate and graduate students — began developing a 25-year plan for the future of libraries on campus. Known as the “Library Master Plan,” the idea is to transition to six central libraries working together to bring more modern facilities to students.

However, this would mean closing around 30 of UW-Madison’s current libraries, as well as remodeling Helen C. White, Memorial and Steenbock libraries. 

Currently one third of campus library space is used to house physical collections of books — totaling over 300 thousand square feet — but only 25 percent of these collections have been used in the past decade. 

UW-Madison junior Laura Buckman enjoys going to the library to check out books when she’s reading for pleasure, but when it comes to textbooks, it’s a different story — it’s much easier to carry around a laptop than a book for every class.

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“I feel that it’s better to have textbooks online maybe because I don’t really like reading it regardless,” Buckman said.

The Master Plan will identify books that aren’t being circulated and move them to a new offsite storage facility, and at the same time consolidate duplicate copies.

The plan also intends to rearrange books to be in more relevant areas of campus while creating an online system to check out these books so students can access physical copies if needed. 

Buckman has never had a professor like England who required her to search out a book in the maze-like stacks. Instead, she’s had professors recommend going to the library to find more sources, but never found it necessary and admitted she wouldn’t know where to begin. 

“I’ve been there to study, but I would have no idea how to even find a book,” she said. 

Throughout the development process, master-planners found there is enough space for 20 percent of the student population to study in campus libraries and hope that removing some of the books will allow greater space for studying.  

Buckman agreed that more study space would be helpful and emphasized the need for outlets so students can keep their laptops charged while they read online — England disagreed.

“A library for me needs to contain books,” he said. “It needs to be a place that you can explore and be surprised by what you find on the shelf.” 

Moving online and sharing resources across the world

The master plan doesn’t intend to limit students’ ability to explore — although the stacks might be diminishing, students are capable of finding more rare and interesting volumes online if they take the time to mine the libraries’ digital collections.  

Jesse Henderson, a digital services librarian at Memorial Library and project manager of digital collections, said she and her team are currently digitizing a series of rare alchemy texts.

“[This collection] is a first edition, there’s only going to be one or two first editions of [it] in the entire world,” she said. 

Many of the books selected to be digitized are so physically degraded that they cannot be handled without falling apart. Moreso, having a digital copy of these rare books means that in worst-case scenarios of fire or water damage, the volume will not be lost.

“Digitization is not happening so that we can get rid of stuff,” Henderson said. 

Instead it is at the forefront of resource sharing and is a way to broaden the world. 

Henderson mentioned a professor who is originally from Spain and — though he now teaches in the U.S. — his research often requires him to return to Spain to access certain manuscripts.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t like to travel, she shared.

Moving resources online gives us the power to share ideas and texts with people and universities across thousands of miles.

“Not only can they come visit physically, but we’re working on getting books out there so they can come look at them online so they don’t have to travel halfway across the world — it’s good for the planet,” Henderson added with a laugh.

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