Thursday, May 22, 2014

Moving Library Books Off-Site: Situating the Trend within the Larger Landscape of Information Availability

by Robert D. Montoya

The functions of libraries seem to be changing. Some of the relatively quiet real estate previously occupied by stacks of books has been transformed into the central hub of campus activity. The once labyrinthian endless rows of knowledge are slowly transforming into spaces where collaborative projects exhibit the use of new modes of­­ technological innovation and investigation. In order to create these new spaces, libraries have devised methods of moving these under (or never) used material to off-site climate-controlled storage. The student, faculty, and public responses to this relocation have been lukewarm at best. The recent uproar over the potential transfer of some three million books from the New York Public Library (NYPL) to a storage facility in New Jersey is good representation of this ongoing debate (Burdick 2014). While the NYPL about-faced on this proposition, the concern expressed by the public is indicative of an increased fear over a lack of access to information. Reasons for transferring books are often financial in nature and mounds of circulation statistics and data are often published to justify such changes. In this post I wish to explicate this tension through the lens of Gayatri Spivak’s notion of the subaltern as well as by using Spivak’s technique of deconstruction to interrogate what it means to ‘access’ library material. I propose deconstructing the relationship between access and non-access in the library setting, focusing on how moving books off-site has the potential to endanger free and anonymous paths to information. Furthermore, by limiting immediate access to library material, institutions are potentially eradicating the one public space where the subaltern segment of the population has the potential to use such information to gain a receptive voice.
Before proceeding, I should establish two working definitions for concepts of the ‘subaltern’ and ‘deconstruction’ as used in this post. A term that gained great traction in Gayatri Spivak’s piece titled, “Can the Subaltern Speak,” the subaltern is generally understood as an individual or group within society whose voice (or collective voice) is not heard or represented in a social context. By definition, the subaltern is not heard, and is thus unable to be either politically represented or “spoken for” by any other segment of the population (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 2006, 29–32). In the context of this blog, I see the subaltern population as a segment of the community that may need to utilize library sources in order to gain a listened-to voice in society.
Deconstruction is a method of textual analysis (broadly defined) that arises from Jaques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, translated with an introduction by Spivak in 1967. In deconstructing a concept or text, one is to identify a binary opposition in order to tease out the “hierarchical concept[s]” inherent in the relationship—where one concept is seen as subordinate to the other (Leckie, Given, and Buschman 2010, 296; Derrida and Spivak 1998, xi). Then, by focusing discussion on the subordinate term, we break down the power relationships by exposing the constructed nature of the relationship, and showing that this relationship need not proceed as it has been conceived. Taking access/non-access as our binary example in this post, the goal is to examine the access from the perspective of those that cannot gain access (non-access) in order to show that institutional choices are not always in line with the optimal forms of access for underrepresented, subaltern members of the community.

            Numerous universities across the United States have chosen to repurpose underutilized library space for collaborative and multi-use purposes. In 2007, Georgia Tech Library “received the Association of College and Research Libraries' (ACRL) ‘University Library of Excellence’ award,” proving to be a model for library renovations across the country (Fox and Stuart).  What were once drab rows of chairs and tables are now active computer terminals, multimedia centers, and peer-to-peer consultation spaces, which proved incredibly successful and dynamic in use. While Georgia Tech generally repurposed areas that were already existing study spaces, some libraries have decided to relocate book stacks in order to make room for these collaborative learning spaces. Southwestern Michigan College (SMC), for example, transformed an “existing 1960s layout featuring traditional hushed space occupied by tall book stacks” into a “vibrant, noisier space” seen as the “social hub” on campus (“SMC a Case Study for Creating an Active Library” 2014). SMC was so successful that it received accolades from the Higher Education Journal as case study of success for such renovation projects.
SMC’s renovation was not without its losses, however: twelve feet of book shelves were removed, titles were weeded out from the collection due to lack of use, and periodicals subscriptions were suspended due to lack of demand. By moving books off site users’ immediate access to material is being diminished. The much-followed proposed renovation of the 5th Avenue Main Branch of the New York Public Library, which involved moving millions of the books to off-site storage, raised a series of objections from the community, claiming that a disappearance of the physical stacks would rip the “spirit” of the institution away for twenty-first century luxuries (Besteman 2014). The articulated justification for NYPL’s relocation of books was that such changes were necessary to conform to the changing needs of the “information age,” and to make way for different services: tutoring and study spaces, for example (“Reimagining The New York Public Library” 2014). These developments in public libraries to move physical books stacks to offsite storage is one example of dislocating physical material from disenfranchised, subaltern populations that can’t otherwise access digital texts online (Schuman 2014). While NYPL’s books will still be request-able within a twenty-four hour turnaround time, the public still objected—so much so that the NYPL reversed their decision to relocate the material in early May, 2014 (Crain 2014).
But why are libraries moving their stacks? A good question—and the reasons are financially and operationally sound. (1) Libraries are running out of space. American University Library in 2011, for example, estimated that their stacks would “run out of space for the monograph collection in less than five years time,” leaving them no other option than to move books to offsite storage (Reeves and Schmidt 2011, 413). (2) Libraries are also facing new demands by users, as was the case in Texas A&M University Library, whose patrons wished for “more independent and collaborate study and learning spaces within the physical environment of the library” (Tabacaru and Pickett 2013, 112). (3) Library and University staff and faculty need more appropriate teaching spaces as well, leading the co-opting of library space for teaching purposes (Freiburger 2010). (4) Circulation statistics for many titles are low and digital journals are being usurped by the availability of digital access, meaning these items are prime targets for off-site storage and deaccessioning (Reeves and Schmidt 2011, 416–418).  (5) Space is at a premium and it’s expensive to keep underused collections in space that can otherwise be used for other uses (Columbia University Libraries Unknown). Institutions are being pulled in multiple directions to evolve with shifting financial resources and perceived user attitudes.
It is important, however, to reexamine ‘access’ not necessarily from an institutional perspective, but from the perspective of the user. In examining the access/non-access binary as it is expressed in the move to relocate books off-site, there is a conflict between institutional notions of access and what types of access individuals might need—especially underprivileged or sensitive members of the population. Access in an institutional setting is about usage insofar as the space or resources should be utilized for the most individuals at any given time. In Columbia University’s “Investing in the Future of Columbia Libraries and Academic Information Systems” library plan, under the subsection titled “Improving Access to Print Collections,” the plan cites holdings overcrowding, difficulty in finding print material, and the resulting user dissatisfaction, as the impetus to moving books off-site to alleviate these issues (Columbia University Libraries). These institutional reasons, as seen above, are understandable and fiscally appropriate given the funding circumstances for libraries. But what these administrative notions of access fail to account for is how these actions may actually inhibit access on an individuated level, especially to segments of the populations whose seeking-out of information necessitates anonymous and immediate access. For example, numerous studies on medical information seeking behaviors, especially related to HIV, indicate that, due to the sensitivity of the information sought-after, the “social costs” of seeking is high, resulting in “information avoidance” (Veinot et al. 2013, 2). The more libraries send material off-site, the more underrepresented and sensitive groups will be required to encounter (and avoid) administrative structures to access information, such as librarians, paging interfaces, and the need to purchase or sign-up for a library card, etc., for fear that the very act of seeking will expose the private information they are seeking.
Compounding this effect is how such limitations to immediate access are part of a larger economy of knowledge, whereby quality information has become far more difficult to obtain. Questions of quality access become tantamount to questions of how much power you have to gain voice within society. In his first monograph, Two Kinds of Power: An Essay on Bibliographic Control, Patrick Wilson describes two interdependent concepts: exploitative power and descriptive power; the former being the ability of individuals to engage and utilize information (find what they need), while the latter being the organization of information in discoverable infrastructures (where they find it) (Wilson 1968). The titular use of “control” is essential in this context, for the apportionment of a means to access is a “political decision” that either denies or affords access to any given group of constituents (Wilson 1968, 133). The less quickly an individual can access material, the less they can exploit its knowledge to power. And the less immediacy these discoverable infrastructures provide in the procurement of scholarship, the less likely they will be able to utilize information when they need it most. If the library space is to serve as a potential space to give voice to the subaltern voiceless, then unmediated access to information is necessary to achieve this goal.
Depending on the internet to deliver this unmediated, quality access to underrepresented portions of the population is not a reasonable alternative. Full-scale access to quality information online is a figment of the imagination, so expecting individuals to speedily find relevant information online is not a wholly adequate solution. This says nothing of the fact that the internet is expensive and still a luxury to some members of society. Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic Search can certainly find you citations to articles and books, but they can’t provide you access unless you have Virtual Private Network (VPN) access such as that provided by universities. As Siva Vaidhyanathan indicates in his book, The Googlization of Everything,

Google’s search results offer the illusion of precision, accuracy, and relevance. Psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley have even published a study claiming the Google’s Web-search techniques mimics the way humans brains recall information. So it is understandable that we have come to believe that Google’s search rankings are for quality of information, simply an extension of our collective judgment (Vaidhyanathan 2011, 3).

We, as a society, are lulled into believing that we have access to quality and relevant information, but in reality have gained little ground. It is no surprise, then, that individuals rally against less access to book stacks given these circumstances.
My main goal here has been to situate the relocation of library books within a larger landscape of information availability. The operational impetuses to move books off site are understandable. These limitations are practical and undeniable facts of the library environment. But we (and I) should not be so hasty to equate these outcries against the moving of stacks offsite with an unwillingness to accept change or to reminiscences of times past. It’s just not that simple. And while the serendipity of browsing may not be as prevalent (or effective) as some think it to be, nor as old a custom as is generally acknowledged, the symbolic value of being able to do so means something to the public in our contemporary climate (Barclay 2010). What these outcries indicate is a collective fear for our ever-increasing loss of unmediated, un-documented access to information that might potentially play a role in the contingencies of our lives. These objections represent a fear of losing direct access to material—books destined to obfuscation behind another web-based user interface managing the paging of material. What is being lamented is a loss of exploitative power. Whether or not books can be paged from offsite storage in twenty-four quick hours, our institutions should be cognizant of and address the larger ecosystem of information deprivation at play as these decisions are being made. As Olson and Fox indicate, “without input from groups as users or formal advisors, the subaltern in the library will be unable to speak” (“Hope Olson and Melodie J. Fox, ‘Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Deconstructionist, Marxist, Feminist, Postcolonialist,’ in C,” 303). To extend this notion, if the library is to be a space where the disenfranchised and the socially marginalized segments of the population can empower themselves with knowledge and social voice, moving books off-site stands as an impediment to easy, free, and anonymous access to the building blocks of mobility.


Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. 2006. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. 2 edition. London ; New York: Routledge.

Barclay, Donald. 2010. “The Myth of Browsing: Academic Library Space in the Age of Facebook.” May 19.

Besteman, Catherine. 2014. “An Open Letter from the Faculty Concerning Miller.” The Colby Echo. April 9.

Burdick, Kelly. 2014. “New York Public Library to Store 3 Million Books... in New Jersey » MobyLives.” Melville House Books. Accessed May 14.

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Crain, Caleb. 2014. “The New York Public Library Comes Around.” The New Yorker Blogs.

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Fox, Robert, and Crit Stuart. “Creating Learning Spaces Through Collaboration: How One Library Refined Its Approach.” Educause.

Freiburger, Gary. 2010. “A ‘White Elephant’ in the Library: A Case Study on Loss of Space from the Arizona Health Sciences Library at the University of Arizona.” Journal of the Medical Library Association : JMLA 98 (1): 29–31. doi:10.3163/1536-5050.98.1.011.

“Hope Olson and Melodie J. Fox, ‘Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Deconstructionist, Marxist, Feminist, Postcolonialist,’ in C.”

Leckie, Gloria J., Lisa M. Given, and John E. Buschman. 2010. Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from Across the Disciplines. 1 edition. Santa Barbara, Calif: Libraries Unlimited.

Reeves, Robert K., and Kari Schmidt. 2011. “Radical Relocation: Adapting Print Collections to an E-Centric World.” The Serials Librarian 61 (3-4): 412–29. doi:10.1080/0361526X.2011.580424.
“Reimagining The New York Public Library.” 2014. Accessed May 15.

“Research Library Renovation.” 2014. Accessed May 15.

Schuman, Rebecca. 2014. “Save Our Stacks: It’s Not about the Books. It’s about the Books Representing the Last Place on Campus Where Intellectual Contemplation Thrives.” Slate. Accessed May 13.

“SMC a Case Study for Creating an Active Library.” 2014. Accessed May 15.

Tabacaru, Simona, and Carmelita Pickett. 2013. “Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't: Texas A&M University Libraries' Collection Assessment for off-Site Storage.” Collection Building 32 (3): 111–15. doi:10.1108/CB-02-2013-0006.

Vaidhyanathan, Siva. 2011. The Googlization of Everything: (and Why We Should Worry). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Veinot, Tiffany Christine, Chrysta Cathleen Meadowbrooke, Jimena Loveluck, Andrew Hickok, and Jose Artruro Bauermeister. 2013. “How ‘Community’ Matters for How People Interact With Information: Mixed Methods Study of Young Men Who Have Sex With Other Men.” Journal of Medical Internet Research 15 (2): e33. doi:10.2196/jmir.2370.

Wilson, Patrick. 1968. Two Kinds of Power; an Essay on Bibliographical Control. University of California Publications: Librarianship, 5. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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