Looking for the Library
On October 8, Lang sophomore Rachel Stine launched the online petition "President-Elect Van Zandt: The New School Needs a Library," demanding that the university build a new library and end its relationship with New York University’s Bobst Library. The petition confused university librarian Ed Scarcelle, who recently finalized plans for a new library to be built in the forthcoming university center at 65 Fifth Ave. “I just wish she had come to me first,” he said.
Stine contacted Scarcelle through The New School's Ask-A-Librarian service and asked how much the university paid NYU for access to Bobst.
“I didn’t know where these questions were coming from and why,” Scarcelle told the Free Press.
Scarcelle felt uncomfortable answering financial questions through the service, which is normally used for things like helping with research papers. “I would be happy to discuss with you any questions you have about library services provided by both The New School and NYU,” he wrote back to Stine.
Stine never visited Scarcelle, but suggested in her petition that Scarcelle had abused bureaucracy to keep information about the library a secret. “Students do not pay $50,000 a year to go to a college that red-tapes us out of a library,” she wrote.
If she had visited his office, Scarcelle might have shared his plans for a two-story library in the new university center, which according to him, will have group study rooms, computers specifically designed for viewing electronic content, and study spaces by the windows with a panoramic view of the neighborhood. “It looks like it’s going to be lovely,” he said.
In spite of these miscommunications – and perhaps because of them – discontent remains widespread about the library system at The New School. Literature professor Nicholas Birns, who Stine said inspired her, laments that a whole generation of students will graduate with out having a traditional university library. Though the Gimbel and Sherman libraries remain open, the lack of a traditional university library and indefinite promises on completion of the university center, scheduled for 2013, raises conflicts about what the university’s library should be.
While all agree that community is an important function of a library, Stine feels that having a space where students can interact outweighs the physical presence of books. She considers the possibility of an all-digital library “a viable option.” For Birns, it’s the tactile presence of books that make libraries important. “How much do we as a society value the physical book?” he asked.
And while Stine considers ending the university’s contract with Bobst a matter of institutional pride, Professor Birns worries that it might be NYU who ends the contract. “Can we count on NYU to give us the use of their library?”
Ed Scarcelle said that he is sympathetic to these concerns, admitting, “In some cases we have relied on Bobst too much in the past.”
As for the prospects of going all digital, Scarcelle said that subscription prices – which, according to an article by the Chronicle of Higher Education, have risen over 227 percent since 1986 – make this a distant possibility. In his tenure as university librarian since 2008, Scarcelle claimed that he has opened communication between the university’s libraries and begun meetings with department heads to prioritize library content for their course load.
It’s valuable advice for academics and activists: before you take action, ask a librarian.