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By Susan Snyder, The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — A plan by the University of Pennsylvania to cut back on two of its branch libraries — one for engineering and the other for math, physics, and astronomy — has yielded an outcry from students and professors who say the books are critical to their studies and research.

Both libraries are housed within the same campus buildings as their departments, and are heavily used by undergraduates and graduate students alike. Mathematics students, in particular, said many of the books and materials they need are not available electronically, and they must browse the library to find what they need.

“We think they’ve grossly underestimated how valuable of a resource this is,” said Brett Frankel, a graduate student in mathematics who signed a petition against the move. “Our subject has a very long memory, and that I think is a big part of why we are so heavily dependent on print sources. I have a book checked out right now that is more than 50 years old.”

The university, however, cites a pressing need for classroom space and, in the case of the engineering library, offices as well. Each library is about 5,000 square feet and houses between 35,000 and 40,000 volumes. The engineering library would be closed under the plan, though it would still have an office for its director, and the math, physics and astronomy library would be reduced by more than a third. The changes, the university said, would not result in layoffs.

“Those of us who grew up with a veneration for the printed word and who still collect and cherish books will be pained by this transition,” Eduardo D. Glandt, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said last week in an email to faculty. “We all understand, however, that we are going through an irreversible sea change. The book or journal printed on cellulose is becoming a collector’s item, a wonderful artifact to be saved and preserved. Just not in the Towne Building.”

That refrain has become a familiar one at universities around the country as they move to digitize libraries and find space for other uses.

“It’s a trend, and it’s unfortunate, really,” said Steven Bell, past president of the Association of College and Research Libraries and associate librarian at Temple University. “They say the library is the heart of the university. They’re cutting a little piece of the heart out now.”

Temple in 2006 closed most of its branch libraries in areas such as education, social work, math, physics, chemistry and biology, he said. The sting hasn’t entirely faded.

“I still run into faculty who will say, ‘I really liked it when we had our own library in our building,'” Bell said.

At Penn on Monday, students turned in a petition with about 500 signatures to the provost’s office, opposing the change in the math, physics, and astronomy library. A second online petition against changes at both libraries has garnered more than 400 signatures to date, students said.

David Harbater, a professor of mathematics and chair of the graduate students, signed on.

“There’s a perception in the public and among administrators that people under 30 or 40 don’t believe in anything on paper, that they believe that books are obsolete,” Harbater said. “But in fact, it turns out that’s not true. People actually care about things that are print. They care about libraries.”

Under Penn’s plan, the library books would be stored in a New Jersey warehouse. Students could request them, but would have to wait several days to receive them, Frankel said.

“A lot of times you’re reading something and you realize you need something else,” said Neel Patel, a mathematics graduate student from South Brunswick, N.J. “If you’ve waited four or five days for that first book, now you realize you need another book, you have to wait another four or five days for that. It’s impossible to get any kind of research done that way. This is sort of sending the wrong message.”

Nisha Sosale, a graduate student in chemical engineering, said she was shocked to hear the engineering library was closing.

“It’s pretty much the only room in this building where you can study,” said Sosale, who was working on her thesis there on Monday.

Andrew Binns, Penn’s vice provost for education, said the university was still reviewing plans for the math library.

“We have lots of different priorities that we have to consider,” he said. “We’re trying to find the right mix of collections, study space and classrooms to meet the needs of the entire community.”

The university, he explained, is moving away from the traditional lecture structure in the engineering and science fields to more “active learning,” and needs flexible spaces where groups of students can sit and work together. Plans call for an “active learning” classroom in what is now the math library.

The university is exploring the possibility of storing the library books at a location closer than the warehouse, possibly in the main library, Binns said.

Access is critical, said Caitlin Beecham, a sophomore math major.

“At any one time, I have three books checked out that I’m reading,” she said. “It’s really important to have the library here.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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