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Here’s where those books went (and what else to know about recent changes in Morse Library)

The Round Table is in the process of obtaining data regarding the exact number of books that were removed, as well as how much the college spends on online periodicals each year.

Cameron Alonso’22 had been working at the Information Desk in Morse Library since fall 2019 when, earlier this semester, he “came in [to the library] one day to study and saw they were knocking down the shelves” in the reference section, he said last week. Like Alonso, many of us in the Round Table office found ourselves a little dazed whenever we passed through the library during the first few weeks of this semester. We watched sealed cardboard boxes accumulate by the front doors and saw the reference section on the first floor evaporate, shelves and all. Last semester, we noticed that the former reference desk had mostly become a spot to leave our own fliers and for the occasional hot chocolate bar.

Former holding spot for stacks.

This week, we’re seeking to understand the changes taking place in our library—in the collections, the reference services and the offices on the ground level—and to clarify them for Round Table readers.

During the summer of 2018, the library and the college’s Information Technology services merged under the moniker Library and Technology Services, or LITS. Adam Dinnes, the Manager of Services and Support for Beloit IT, told the Round Table that before the merger, IT had reported to Vice President for Human Resources and Operations Lori Rhead, and the library had reported to former Provost and Dean of the College Ann Davies, who departed from Beloit that same summer after the college announced a $7 million deficit.

The same two departments had merged and unmerged once before. Fred Burwell’86, the college archivist, said that when they’d previously been one office, IT staff and library staff would have Christmas parties and cookouts, but rarely saw each other on campus. Now, as the Round Table reported in our September 16, 2019 issue, IT has moved from its previous location on the top floor of Mayer Hall to renovated offices on the ground floor of the library. Some of the former IT space in Mayer is still being used as storage.

“It was difficult to manage [LITS] with two locations,” Dinnes said. “Even when we weren’t merged, we collaborated, but it was more planned,” he added, and “now, we have more spontaneous collaboration, because we just run into each other.”

He noted that similar merges have become common at schools like Beloit because “libraries handle information access, and IT handles information systems,” so collaboration seems logical to administrators.

“We are two of the departments on campus that are more inward-facing, and are not about alumni or recruitment,” Kallie Leonard, the library’s Collection Acquisitions and Access Coordinator, pointed out.

“It’s been nice, but it’s also been a bit more difficult, because we get a lot more walk-ins,” said Athena Tate, a Technology Project Manager. “We’re available, but we tend to spend a lot more time working one-on-one with people, and we don’t have the luxury of staying out of the way” of the rest of campus, she added.

But both Dinnes and Tate agreed that they preferred their new physical offices to the ones in Mayer, not least because of a leaky roof in the other building.

LITS is managed by Pam McQuesten, whose title at the college is Chief Information Officer and Library Director. McQuesten was hired by Beloit in December of 2016, and she has previously worked at Occidental College, Southwestern University, the University of Texas at Austin and in the California State University system. Burwell said that McQuesten told LITS staff that “she saw this as a truly merged organization” and that the IT move was her decision.

McQuesten told the Round Table this week that she thinks of the library as a “third place” for students, existing somewhere in between residential life and academic life. She said that the library functions as a “learning commons” that bridges the gap between those two halves of the on-campus experience.

McQuesten said that she suggested the weeding project in the reference collection (“weeding” is library jargon for the systematic removal of any kind of material) after noticing that Beloit’s World Book collection was 10 years old, and thinking, “people shouldn’t be using this.”

“I was wondering how much more in the reference collection was superseded,” she said. Haley Lott, the Student Success and Engagement Librarian, said that it was important to avoid endorsing incorrect information: “something being in a reference section is the library’s stamp of approval.”

The American Library Association (ALA) recommends regular collection weeding for public, school and academic libraries. According to the ALA’s website, “regardless of format, an optimal library collection is one that is reviewed on a consistent basis for accuracy, currency, usage, diversity, and subject area gaps.” Beloit librarians told the Round Table that they used an approach recommended by the ALA known as the CREW (Continuous Review, Evaluation, and Weeding) method, which recommends that libraries remove books that are “factually inaccurate,” “worn beyond mending or rebinding,” “superseded by a new edition of or by a much better book on the subject,” “of no discernible literary or scientific merit,” “irrelevant to the needs and interests of the library’s community,” or “easily obtainable from another library.” According to Burwell, this approach is most often used by public libraries rather than by academic ones.

To aid with this process, the college hired OCLC, Inc., a nonprofit cooperative organization that according to its website “supports thousands of libraries in making information more accessible and more useful.” An OCLC service called GreenGlass generated a database containing a 28-year circulation history of all of the books in the library’s collection, indicating how often they had been checked out.

Books that are reshelved by librarians are processed as checkouts even if they have not left the library, although McQuesten conceded that it’s unclear whether this practice has remained consistent during the past three decades. The data indicate that “67% of the current collection has not been touched in the past 10 years,” according to an announcement that McQuesten sent to faculty and staff in October.

Using those data and the CREW method, librarians selected books to be removed from the reference section. Books that met other weeding criteria but were not available through Interlibrary Loan were kept in the collection.

Faculty members were invited to review the books that had been marked for removal, and to request that certain ones were retained in the library’s general collection or to keep for their own offices. Several professors told the paper that they weren’t aware of that invitation. “I thought it was very poorly communicated to the faculty, in that it was buried very deep in emails that one did not necessarily read,” Associate Professor and Chair of History Ellen Joyce told the Round Table on Tuesday. “I was disappointed that more faculty didn’t go, and I think more communication and more reminders would have helped with that,” she said.

“We would love more collaboration… we’re happy to explain the process, we just need people to ask questions,” said Lott.

Joyce estimated that 10 faculty members showed up to mark books to be retained. She said she requested to keep about 30 books. 

“Weeding is the middle of the process,” explained Lott. She clarified that, for example, books that are pulled because they are “worn beyond mending or rebinding” by CREW standards are replaced with copies in better condition. “We didn’t lose access to anything,” Lott said.

150 cartons of books were removed from the library at the beginning of this semester, according to McQuesten, although she was unsure of the exact number of books that filled those cartons. “We carted them out, some in a wheelbarrow, and we didn’t count them,” McQuesten said. The majority of those books were sent to Better World Books, an online retailer of new and used books that donates one book to a charity like Feed the Children or Books for Africa for each one that it sells. An unknown percentage of its profits from books formerly in the Beloit College collection was donated to Morse Library.

Books not accepted by Better World Books were left on a cart at the front of the library and offered to students for free. If those books had not been taken after a certain amount of time, they were placed in a recycling bin.

The library recently added a number of journals to its online collection.

“There are two or three people on campus who would much prefer it if we kept everything and never got rid of everything,” said McQuesten. “The book is like a sacred object for people in academia.”

Although “no one has ever told me, ‘no, we can’t order that for you’” through Interlibrary Loan, Joyce said, “I don’t think the collection needed as much weeding as it received… it seemed like a pretty radical cutback to me.” She continued, “what I’m most worried about is losing the books that are the oldest” and the ability to “trace the history of an idea.”

Burwell echoed those concerns, saying, “dated things can be incredible primary source documents.” He added that “the potential is for some really good things to go… in a situation where [the college is] hurting financially, why are we getting rid of resources that we already have?”

“My main concern is that if we’re getting rid of things, we want to be sure that we have updated digital sources,” Professor of English Tamara Ketabgian told the paper over the phone on Friday. “In the future, we might not have the economic resources to maintain those subscriptions… I don’t know how much those cost.” [Editor’s note: stay tuned!]

The area that formerly held the reference collection is now home to additional study space, including newly-purchased tables topped with whiteboard material. McQuesten said she wished that LITS had put up a sign explaining the coming changes before those shelves were removed.

Beloit College is not the only institution to weed a significant portion of its collection at one time. In the fall of 2017, a decision at Indiana University of Pennsylvania to remove more than a third of its library’s collection caused a campus-wide debate, according to the student newspaper The HawkEye.

Another recent and notable change in the library is the elimination of a reference desk. Former librarian Chris Nelson, who is married to Burwell and who began working at the library in 1984, manned that desk when she retired in January 2019, and that position was not replaced.

Students can use the library website to make appointments for research help, and Lott estimates that she has had over 150 research appointments since September, including a few via Skype, on weekends and after midnight.

“Haley and Kelly [Leahy, another Student Success and Engagement Librarian] have been really good about making appointments with students,” said Ketabgian, although Joyce was “concerned that the extra step of making an appointment will inhibit the use” of the library’s reference services.

Burwell had the same concern. “One of the things that made Beloit Beloit was that welcoming feeling as you walked into the library… the friendly face that was there as you walked in the door is no longer there,” he said.

“While some physical changes are happening, the Beloit College DNA—an immersive, close-knit living and learning environment, an emphasis on mentoring and advising, and a supportive community of interesting people with a variety of passions—will continue to inform the decisions that shape the library’s present and future,” McQuesten wrote in an email to the Round Table on Feb. 22. On Feb. 19, she had spoken to faculty at Academic Senate about those physical changes, and felt that her presentation was well received.

When Joyce took her senior seminar students to the library earlier this semester, “most of my students said they’d never looked at that stuff before, which made me say, ‘I need to change the way I teach research,’” she said. “I can see why there’s a perception that those materials aren’t useful, but that’s probably on us [professors].”

Many students say that they use the library primarily as a study space and are less likely to check out books now that they have access to so many online resources. Peyton Scarpaci’23, who was hired at the library the summer before his first semester here and carried out much of the preliminary physical weeding process, told the paper on Thursday that he regularly checks out books, but doesn’t use the remaining reference collection.

“I didn’t use the reference collection” either, Alonso, the other student library employee, said. “I hope no one did, because now it’s gone.”

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