Library needs more discussion

Stephen Herr
assistant professor of educational studies, leadership and counseling

In his inaugural address, Randy Dunn spoke of the need for Murray State to build a new library. What Dr. Dunn could have known about the needs of Murray State after such a short time here is beyond me. What he might know about libraries having been a department chair at SIU-Carbondale and a State Superintendent of Education in the Blagojevich administration is again beyond me.

But using his authority as President he organized the New Library Task Force, whose charge included “assess[ing] the needs of Murray State University and identify[ing] offices, features and services to be included in the new library.”

I have some sense of what seem to be the articulated concerns regarding Waterfield: It’s too crowded, it can’t bear the weight of its collections, it was never designed to be a library… etc. But what I don’t understand is why Dr. Dunn chose what seems to be the largest and most expensive way to deal with these problems.

In the larger world of universities and libraries you see all sorts of wonderful and creative solutions for dealing with many of the concerns we have here in Murray and many of these solutions are far less expensive and/or environmentally intrusive than building a big, new $62 million library. For example: In Great Britain one university remodeled a military drill hall which was built during WWI and turned it into a modern, award-winning library. They did it for about 10 million pounds. So I would think that a building that is already being used as a library could be remodeled for less than $62 million here in Kentucky.

Another idea is embedding. The idea is to move library functions out from the main library and out to where people are. This idea is being used aggressively at Johns Hopkins University. So maybe at Murray State, rather than building a library with a coffee shop, we could move some library functions to the coffee shop. Or instead of building a big, new library with classrooms in it, we could move some library functions to a building that already has classrooms.

Or we could use Yale as example. At Murray State, we pride ourselves on our residential colleges. At Yale their residential colleges have libraries. If we built a library over on the other side of campus it might meet a large number of student needs far better than just building a bigger library in pretty much the same place.

Another idea might be to focus more on digitizing our collection. One prestigious prep school in New England did away with their entire paper collection. I’m not suggesting anything that extreme, but a digitized collection would ease some of the strain on Waterfield and might be a significant benefit to our off campus students. I never understood how a big, new library in Murray would be much of a benefit to our students in Henderson, Hopkinsville or Paducah. But an expanded digital collection might be a great benefit to those students. And of course let’s not forget that more than two-thirds of our students live off campus.

Another thing I don’t understand is why Waterfield is being used as a storage facility. An enormous amount of floor space in both Waterfield and Pogue is given over to material which is rarely, if ever, used. Wouldn’t it make more sense to store that material off site, in an inexpensive storage facility? This is done at other universities all across the country so why not do something like that here?

And speaking of other universities, as they grow they don’t just keep building bigger and bigger libraries; one of the things they do is build subject area libraries. Maybe it’s time we built a Business Library or a Science Library or an Education Library. That’s what they did at UK. And since we are looking to complete the last stage of the Science Complex, this might be a good time to think about some design modifications which could include a library.

In his recent State of the University Address, Dr. Dunn talked about his “background and experience.” Well, for anyone who has been following the fate of Illinois over the last few years one thing we all know is that the state is going through an exceptionally difficult fiscal period. Nothing startling or new, lots of debts and obligations and not enough money coming in. Illinois means a great deal to me. My wife was born and raised there. I taught there early in my career, and I have friends there, but if there’s one good lesson Kentucky can learn from Illinois, it is to be a little more careful when it comes to spending money.

In the end, I don’t know why Dr. Dunn first set his sights on building a big, new library. But I do know that in the 2007-2008, Murray State University Libraries Annual Report Dr. Dunn stated that “[a]t any college or university, the library must be the academic heart of the institution…” but even the Tin Man and Wizard know you can’t buy a heart, not even for $62 million. The heart of Murray State is its people. It always has been and it always will be.