This week, U of C administrators resolved one of the campus’s most pressing needs: constructing new storage space for the University’s rapidly growing library collection. The University library system will be expanded in 2010 to include the Mansueto Library, a large glass dome and underground lair. The project is not without value. After all, Max Palevsky will breathe a little easier knowing that it is no longer the most ostentatiously ugly building on the Bartlett Quads. But the library expansion also raises an important question: Is this really the best use of our money?
Even with the $25 million donation from Joe and Rika Mansueto, the University will have to chip in nearly $55 million to fund the new library. Such expenditure is only justified if a library expansion is necessary and more pressing than other needs facing the campus. On both accounts, it is apparent that the project is of questionable value.
First, the expansion, as proposed, is entirely unnecessary. The Reg is running out of shelf space, and the Mansueto Library would house up to 3.5 million volumes. The U of C is not the only school to be plagued with diminishing shelf space, but it has failed to pursue the cheaper, more efficient ideas of its peer institutions. For example, Harvard and Yale are focusing on digitizing their libraries and moving more obscure collections to cheaper, off-campus storage in large warehouses where the excess volumes are placed in high-density storage. Digital copies are made easily accessible to students who wish to consult the satellite volumes; those who do not want to use the digital versions can request to have the hard copies delivered to them.
In fact, the U of C is collaborating with Google to do just that, rendering the Mansueto Library redundant and unnecessary. Instead of adopting these more sensible efforts, however, the administration has seen fit to pour tens of millions of dollars into building an on-campus mausoleum for its books.
The University has already more than established itself as a quirky, book-obsessed environment habitated by excessively studious bibliophiles. Storing some rarely accessed volumes closer to the heart of campus will do little to, as the administration has suggested, improve our academic prestige.
Furthermore, the millions being used to build the library could be far better spent addressing actual student concerns. For example, the Reynolds Club is inadequate as a student center. RSOs that desire meeting space are crammed into its basement, and Hutch Commons is often unbearably crowded. A modern, spacious commons would benefit current students and be a major drawing point for prospective ones.
President Zimmer has made an admirable effort to meet with students on a regular basis, but he remains out of touch if he thinks our tuition dollars are best spent building a futuristic dome as an expensively outdated way to store books.
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