USF: Collecting Dust
This explanation, if accepted, may quell the controversy swirling around USF. Perhaps a one-time sale of a few items will resolve their issues and enable the Gleeson to preserve the rest of their books for generations to come. Time will tell. However, this solution is unlikely to resolve the issues facing libraries in general, and rare book rooms in particular. San Francisco may prove to be the exception rather than the test, but the issue of the viability of the rare book library is likely to play itself out many times in the years ahead. This is a far bigger issue than what happens at the University of San Francisco, and it is an issue other libraries must be ready to handle before it is thrust upon them unprepared.
Within educational institutions today, economic reality, and the current economic downturn in particular, is focusing attention on the library because information distribution is experiencing quantum leaps in efficiency while decentralizing access and diminishing the library's place in it. Succinctly stated, information is ever more important while the library's physical role and presence in the process is declining. Libraries are being repurposed and find themselves on the fault lines of fast evolving change.
Their investments in library electronics are increasing even as their audiences' expectations are changing and many of their traditional roles and functions declining. They are connecting to the world, incorporating more databases, adding their voices to the push for more, faster and broader distributed electronic access and discovering that faster distributed services have an absolute price: reduced in person use in the library including declining interest and use of special collections. Even the college library's bread and butter - "on reserve at the library" readings - are increasingly available electronically. Taken together, these revolutionary changes, higher costs and reduced traffic are leading institutions to reevaluate the library's mission, shifting budget to technology at the expense of less-used services and sections. To all this the economic downturn adds the complex calculus of too few dollars at the very moment more is needed. It is in fact a rare and urgent moment.
To maintain their budgeting priority within the library's general allocations, rare book rooms and special collections at colleges and universities are responding, as is the case at Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library [the RBML], by working to increase traffic and involvement by integrating rare book materials into course curricula where possible. But Columbia has an extraordinary rare book library; more than 500,000 printed books and 14 miles of manuscripts, personal papers and records. Most universities have much less. The University of San Francisco has 20,000 items, 4% of Columbia's elephantine number. On a recent visit to Columbia, I was permitted to count the number of persons signing in to the rare book library's daily register. On busy summer days it reaches 18, on winter days it's closer to 8. At NYU, at the other end of Manhattan, the rare book room has 4 or 5 visitors a day year round. At USF, it is about 1 a day. Considering the cost of staff and fixed expenses it is easy to see allocated overheads per visit running from $350 per guest at Columbia to over a $1,000 at the Donohue Rare Book Room. Such services are, for some institutions, already a luxury and prospects for further declines in use and support suggest a growing imbalance between needed investment and return. This is a sorry situation but more a comment on our culture than a statement about rare books or the institutions that house them.