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The library is often part of the quintessential vision of a New England college campus. And books — dusty, worn, in carts or flipped open on desks — are an essential part of that nostalgic picture. 

But as many higher education services traditionally offered in person move online, more library materials and experiences have jumped to digital formats. 

Now, Vermont State University — a new institution to be formed from three existing Vermont public colleges — has announced that it will be transforming its libraries to be “all-digital.”

Though the physical spaces will continue to serve students, administrators said print materials will no longer be procured for students who do not have a documented accommodation showing they need them. The university will maintain a core of print books that are either highly used or essential to curricula and can’t be found digitally, but will not be keeping most of its print collection. 

While some librarians say the decision is arguably nothing drastically new in the world of college libraries, other university librarians and students have criticized the move, saying it goes far beyond the practices of other digitally inclined institutions. As library digitization grows, so too will conversation about where the line is between an embrace of technology and shunning physical collections. 

A ‘very progressive decision’

Maurice Ouimet, vice president of admissions at Vermont State University, said the decision was the best-case scenario for the institution. 

“It’s a bold decision. It’s a very progressive decision, and I think that many other colleges and universities will be following suit in the not-too-distant future,” he said. “I really do believe that this is the way of the future.” 

Ouimet believes the university will be first among its peer institutions to embrace digital resources so fully, he said.

Vermont State will still have more students attending in-person than online once it’s formed by merger in July. But the online segment of enrollment is growing, Ouimet said.

Plus, the number of physical books that library staff reshelve has been in decline, he said. That likely indicates students are relying less and less on books.

The transition could also save money. Currently, maintenance of physical collections is about 30% of the library operating budget, Ouimet said. However, costs of the digital transition have yet to be worked out.

‘Potential to really diminish the experience’

Despite its lofty language, the university’s announcement of the decision was met with uproar. 

“I’ve not seen a community across our system rise up in response to something like this in a long time. It’s beyond just our campus border,” Ouimet said. “It’s because of the scale and magnitude of the change.”

It wasn’t only a change in how students access materials. The decision was also going to result in the elimination of some library positions. 

President Parwinder Grewal issued an apology to students, faculty and staff three days after the decision was announced, emphasizing that no physical library or campus would be closed.

“We must make strategic decisions. And sometimes those decisions may mean a change in one area that will feel like loss to invest in another area. As we make these investments, we also have a budgeted $22.6M loss this year,” Grewal wrote. “I stand behind the decisions — but those decisions are not the end of the story. They are the beginning.”

However, the message did not placate all who were troubled by the decision. For some, it only raised more questions. 

“It has a lot of potential to really diminish the experience of students and faculty at this institution,” said Erin Ellis, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries and associate dean of research and learning services at Indiana University. 

“Digital collections are intended as a complement to print because not everything is available digitally,” Ellis said. “Not everything is digitized and not everything will be digitized.”

Faculty from the three to-be-merged institutions voted no confidence in the board of trustees overseeing them in February. The same month, students from the colleges took their cause to the Statehouse, carrying signs underlining the importance of physical books to the learning experience. 

The Vermont Library Association and the Vermont School Library Association both issued statements opposing the plan. Several op-eds ran in local publications advocating against the decision. 

Critics generally said digital collections are important, but that the decision by Vermont State was poorly thought-out and likely to negatively affect students. 

Some raised the issue of equity. Not all students have high-quality internet access in rural Vermont. Texts that are unlikely to be digitized are often by authors from groups underrepresented in scholarship. 

The surrounding non-college community was likely to suffer, some said, if the university offloaded collections that were previously accessible to others via interlibrary loans. Students could lose the serendipity that comes from stumbling upon new materials in stacks of books and the comfort of reading away from a screen.

“It’s very concerning,” said Margaret Woodruff, chair of the Vermont Library Association’s government and advocacy committee. “It isn’t that the digital shouldn’t be there, it’s just that it can’t take the place of print absolutely.”

And while it may appear that the decision could cut costs for the college, it could also end up being more expensive.

“Sometimes the e-book is significantly more expensive, sometimes three times more expensive than the physical book,” said Charlotte Gerstein, reference and instruction librarian at Castleton University, which will be merged into Vermont State. “It’s going to cost a lot of money to make more of these texts available to unlimited users.” 

Three of five staff members at Gerstein’s library received layoff notices, she said. A committee had already been working on a different transformation plan that included an embrace of digital materials, right up until the new announcement, she said. And engagement with staff could have produced other solutions, like winnowing down the physical collection.

Gerstein said the current plan will put the university at the mercy of publishers, and there have already been dustups related to access. Last year, the publisher Wiley removed 1,300 ebooks from its academic collections. Wiley said the move was due to a “regular review of collections” but said it would restore access after pushback.

Beth McNeil, vice president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, is dean of libraries at Purdue University. Although the university has a smaller print collection than some other institutions and adheres to a digital-first philosophy, she feels that the decision by Vermont State will weaken the experience of students. 

“We still buy print books when requested, but if we get a request for something to add to our collections and media isn’t specified, we go digital,” she said. “But even here at Purdue we still value the print that we have because we know that, at this point in time, they’re not replaceable.”

Other libraries have already gone digital-first

However, other librarians have said that Vermont’s decision is nothing new. Mark McBride, associate director for libraries at research nonprofit Ithaka S+R, previously consulted with Vermont officials about their library when he worked at the State University of New York system. In his understanding, he said, the move is not out of step with where libraries are heading or the general philosophy of “digital-first.”

“The scaleback from a print collection is nothing unique,” he said. “Institutions are putting more resources toward student success and less toward physical materials.” 

The University of Texas at San Antonio has had a bookless science and engineering library since 2010. Throughout the entire library system, print comprises only 2.5% of checked-out material, but it takes up about 7% of the library budget, said Dean Hendrix, the university librarian. That has helped the university conserve space and serve its students, who are majority Latino and frequently eligible for federal Pell Grants, which go to low- and middle-income students.

The bookless engineering library is working well, Hendrix said, but it is small and niche. The bookless format won’t work in every discipline.

“There are obviously some disciplines that still rely on print for their pedagogy and research,” Hendrix said. “Art history is one, where you might think of a big art book plate, or radiology, where you have x-rays, where you might need something in print to really get the full experience.”

Elaine Westbrooks, university librarian at Cornell University, expressed similar thoughts. The university’s engineering library is nearly all-digital, but the rest of Cornell is not digital-first. Digital might be right for engineering but more difficult for other disciplines, she said. 

“What Vermont State did is actually not very new,” Westbrooks said. “What can be learned from this whole situation is that libraries are beloved, they’re iconic and they’re sacred.”