The Vermont Library Association (VLA), representing more than 300 librarians, library staff, and trustees in public, school, academic, and corporate libraries, is calling on the leadership of the Vermont State University (VTSU) to reverse their decision to close the physical libraries on its campuses.
The move to “all-digital” libraries announced on February 8 will hurt students, faculty, staff, and the rural communities in which the VTSU campuses are located.
The students of the VTSU deserve access to robust library collections and services. This includes face-to-face and online services, such as reference and course support, and collections in digital and print formats.
The students and faculty of the VTSU deserve support from librarians who know their institution’s collection, and their curriculum. Contracting out with a 24/7 chat service for reference service is no substitute for a librarian who has selected, purchased, cataloged, and curated a collection in conjunction with faculty members on a specific campus, who knows what a given professor has asked for and why, who knows the curriculum, and who can suggest other resources available both on hand and online. The current plan outlined by VTSU does not include adequate resources to continue their current level of service.
Digital materials play a role in all current academic library collections; However, they come with limitations. Research and national surveys indicate that many students prefer digital formats for newspapers and reading fiction, but for nonfiction and complex texts reading in print is preferred.
The VTSU statement provides misleading information about access to digital materials and states they will provide, “Unlimited user access to resources.” Digital materials for libraries cost more than print materials, and are subject to complex licenses that dictate who can use the materials and how many people can access a title at the same time. The greater the access a library wants, the more a library will have to pay. In addition, most contracts for digital academic library materials make it impossible for the citizens of Vermont to access these materials unless they are in a physical library.
We recognize that VTSU is attempting to provide equitable access to all their learners, especially those for whom traveling is a hardship. However, moving to an all-digital model will provide significant challenges in locations without reliable and affordable broadband service. Access 24/7 is only available for locations with 24/7 connectivity. This proposal will harm students working in areas without broadband access and engender more inequity on students from rural communities, where most of the VTSU campuses are located. Libraries are infrastructure. We all saw first-hand the difficulties students at all levels experienced during the pandemic, and building back strong communities should be a priority. This proposal threatens the intellectual life of the campuses and the communities they serve.
Finally, VTSU’s decision to dispose of their print collections “first to the VSCS community” and then as donations to local public libraries will have a far reaching ripple effect. Vermont public libraries already lack adequate space and staffing to manage current collections. The interlibrary loan system is a structure by which all libraries share their resources. If VTSU eliminates all print materials, then all of Vermont and the larger interlibrary loan service area suffer; as well as the students and faculty of VTSU, who now have no resources to reciprocate, and are unable to participate in this service.
The proposal to close physical campus libraries is short sighted, and we urge VTSU to explore alternative models that build on the strengths of both digital and analog collections and services in supporting Vermont State University students and the citizens of Vermont.