Leuven University Library
The library of the University of Leuven, Belgium


Former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren raised the collective hackles of the library profession last week, when she took universities to task on Twitter for indulging in the construction of “huge libraries,” which she characterized as “vanity projects” that increase costs for students. In a subsequent video commentary she clarified a bit, explaining that she believes we need libraries, but wondered why we’re constructing big new library buildings “when so many of these books… are on the Internet.” She went on: “You’ve got it on your smartphone, you’ve got it on your iPad, your laptop, so why are we building all these buildings?”

Not just a box of books

Unsurprisingly, librarianship was not amused. Several prominent members of the profession responded by noting the importance of the library building not just as a storage unit for physical documents, but as a place where students gather in order to do scholarly work. Others pointed out that libraries provide direct service to students and scholars — in terms of both locally-created online programming and individual research consultation, both of which require significant infrastructure. Other arguments could have been multiplied as well: academic libraries collect not just commodity documents (commercially-available books, articles, and recordings that are often accessible online) but also rare and unique documents that most definitely are not “on your smartphone,” at least not unless they’re stored, curated, and digitized — processes that require substantial physical facilities. And then there’s the library’s brokerage function — or, as the president of the American Library Association rather trenchantly put it, “I’m not sure what Ms. Van Susteren thinks delivers this content to her phone.”

In short, Ms. Van Susteren’s comments suggest that she doesn’t fully understand what academic libraries are and what they do. On the other hand, it’s interesting to note that in a very real way her comments suggest that she is tuned in (perhaps more tuned in than she knows) to the implications of some significant librarian-driven trends in the profession — notably, of course, the open access (OA) movement.

Open access and the library building

After all, open access is, by definition, online access. The idea of “open access” to physical documents makes no sense. You can’t provide free and unfettered public access to a physical object; the physical nature of the object creates a radical restriction on both access to and reuse of its content. The institutional repositories that we’ve built in most of our research libraries require server space and some amount of staffing, but certainly not large physical facilities. Nor — as T. Scott Plutchak has convincingly argued — is it even necessarily the case that open scholarship is best served by the creation and maintenance of thousands of individual and widely-distributed institutional repositories as opposed to a small number of large and comprehensive central ones. What all of this suggests is that as more and more scholarship becomes available on an OA basis, it does become less and less obvious that we need “huge library buildings.”

In fact, the more scholarship becomes available on an OA basis, the less obvious it becomes that many of the library’s historical functions remain necessary. Historically, these functions have included brokerage (pooling community funds to purchase documents or access on behalf of the community), storage, curation (decidedly not the same thing as storage), processing and physical handling, organization, and research guidance.

Which of these functions would remain essential in a predominantly OA environment? Certainly the need for local physical storage and curation declines as more scholarship becomes available online, though it doesn’t entirely disappear as long as there remains a need for the storage and curation of non-commodity documents. Physical processing and the logistical problems associated with organizing physical documents certainly go away to the degree that OA becomes the norm in scholarly communication. Organization remains important, but in an online environment it becomes purely a matter of metadata — which is no small task, but not obviously one that needs to be undertaken redundantly by thousands of librarians within the walls of hundreds or thousands of large library buildings. (The need for research guidance, of course, doesn’t go away with the online shift, and arguably it increases — even if demand for it doesn’t.)

The library as broker

What about the brokerage function, though? How might that library role persist in a wholly or predominantly OA environment? The most obvious way it continues is if the library takes on the role of underwriting OA publishing rather than underwriting access. This is the idea behind some of the various “flip” proposals that have emerged in recent years, including the OA Network, the Pay It Forward model, and Knowledge Unlatched. All of them draw on library funds not to buy access on behalf of library patrons, but to subsidize the publication of scholarship up front and then make it freely available to all. (The OA Network’s model actually proposes that these funds come from colleges and universities rather than from libraries, but as of this writing it looks like almost all of the OA Network’s supporting members are individuals and organizations other than colleges and universities — quite a few of them academic libraries.) But again, it’s worth pointing out that for libraries to undertake this role would by no means require the construction of large buildings.

So is Van Susteren right after all? Has the online revolution of the past two decades turned large new library buildings into nothing more than campus trophies designed to invoke awe and respect in the minds of parents and donors while quietly fleecing students with new campus fees? And do the goals of the OA movement in particular, should they be realized, promise to obviate the library building to a substantial degree?

I think Van Susteren’s fundamental mistake — the one that most clearly exposes her lack of understanding about what’s currently happening in higher education — lies in her apparent assumption that these “huge buildings” are being built with the expectation that they’ll house large collections of commodity books. In fact, academic libraries are giving decreasing amounts of space to collections, and increasing amounts of it over to work and social spaces. If you look at the most recent new constructions and renovations of existing libraries on research campuses, one of the striking trends is the decline in percentage of space given over to bookshelves. Instead, the current trend is in the direction of larger and more flexible spaces for collaborative scholarly work, for partnership with other campus entities like academic advising, teaching-and-learning centers, university presses, digital scholarship programs, and “maker spaces” in which the library not only provides capital equipment for the creation of digital and physical objects, but also collaborates directly and programmatically with other academic departments and centers. The ongoing and dramatic decrease in usage of printed books — particularly on the large research campuses most likely to construct “huge libraries” — has given these developments additional momentum.

Not everyone in academia generally or in librarianship specifically is equally happy about all of these developments; some regard them excitedly as the opening of innovative new frontiers in academic support; others regard them grumpily as mission drift at best, and intellectual degeneracy at worst. But the overall trend is very clear: research libraries are decreasingly built for the purpose of housing and taking care of commodity books and journals, the documents that tend strongly to be available, in Van Susteren’s words, “on your smartphone… on your iPad, (on) your laptop,” etc.

So maybe the question isn’t whether we need huge new library buildings. The more serious question might be how much longer it will make sense for us to continue calling these buildings “libraries.”

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


15 Thoughts on "How Wrong Is Greta Van Susteren about Libraries?"

Good commentary, Rick. And indeed new library buildings are increasingly not using the term “library” to describe themselves. Witness the new “Active Learning Center” opening at Purdue University in fall 2017: https://www.lib.purdue.edu/walc/

We still call cell phones phones even though they are used less and less for actual phone calls (if you are unsure of this you obviously don’t have a tween or teenage in your household.) Libraries through the ages have looked different as the technology of intellectual engagement has changed. I

I always assumed that one of the points of the OA movement was to eliminate the need for libraries and as such, librarians. The further desire to just throw things up online and let nature work it out tosses out journals, books, and the curators of journals and books. This won’t happen overnight, but I would seriously reconsider getting a degree in library science these days. This is, in my view, a mistake; but the library community in general seems to be advancing these initiatives by advocating for all OA for everything and complacency about where students access content.

What to call the space is an interesting question. Parents and donors probably still like the term “library” but what does it mean to students? Local libraries are fighting for their lives as few people need to go to the library to access the internet (though for those that do, this is a critical function) and you can buy a book fairly inexpensively at Amazon and not have to worry about making it back for a return. You can read a whole magazine while sipping a latte at a local B&N (if you can find one) without paying anything. These are the experiences of the “students” there now and will be the experiences of the parents of students in the not so distant future.

I think the great majority of OA advocates would strongly dispute your belief that “one of the points of the OA movement (is) to eliminate libraries and as such, librarians.” Of course, whether the elimination of libraries/librarians is their intention is a separate question from the actual impact that particular OA initiatives would (if successful) have in the world. One of my recurring bones of contention with OA advocates is what seems to me like a nearly systemic unwillingness to deal with the issue of unintended consequences generally.

Fair enough. It’s just that the elimination or de-emphasis on the need for libraries seems like such a logical consequence, it never occurred to me that it wasn’t considered or intended.

In response to both Angela Cochran and Greta van Susteren: when were you last in a library of any kind? People are there, interacting with one another as well as with books, journals, video, audio, and whatever else the particular library has. Many people–even those who grew up with computers and “phones”–need help finding, evaluating, and using information resources. School and academic libraries have a teaching mission along with their research and study support.
I second the ALA president’s reminder that the organization and evaluation, as well as access, of those records of human knowledge and culture takes a lot of professional work. Even DOAJ would benefit from cataloging, indexing, and abstracting experts.

I take my kids to the library. I am not in any way advocating for the loss of libraries. I am constantly seeing news stories about lack of funding for local libraries and staff cuts at libraries and ballot initiatives that support library funding failing. I am a firm believer that human collections and curation are critical in a civilized society. My point was that current initiatives to dismantle scholarly publishing as it stands, does not seem to support the long-term need for libraries as institutions.

Why? It’s still information. It still needs to be described, findable, accessible, preserved. Academic libraries have never been all about journal content. These days we’re very focused on “institutional assets” ie. the non-traditional research output of our researchers.

Very interesting conversation, all the more so since I cannot remember the last time I agreed with Ms Van Susteren on anything. In fairness, I don’t agree with her 100% here, by any means…but the “question behind the question” may be more important.
As the costs of a university education in the US become ever-more out of reach, and as folks continue to question whether the cost of an expensive private university education can ever be recouped, it seems fair to ask what the ROI is on ANY expensive building project that a university might undertake.
To the degree that many of the library’s traditional functions are met in other ways now, I don’t think it is wrong to ask what the students “get” from a large, new library. The ideas that it is simply meeting space, or space to interact with journals, video, and audio, don’t seem to make the grade…can those needs not be met far less extravagantly?
Stated otherwise, the concept of “library” endures as important as ever. Curation, research, and brokerage functions remain mission-critical. I’m less convinced, though, that the physical edifice — so-often the gorgeous, elegant centerpiece of a campus, including the campus I studied on (Dartmouth) — really justifies the expenses of construction in quite the same way it once did. The ways we use and obtain information change with time. The places in which we do that may need to change, too, particularly in light of the tremendous costs involved.

Good question. Are we evolving in such ways that “libraries” no longer quite fits what is happening in the library facility?

In this column I suggested something else “student success center” (or perhaps campus success center) given some of the co-located, one-stop academic success models we are seeing in new and renovated library buildings:


Bringing the content, people, services and other academic support resources that facilitate student and faculty success (or enabling them to be successful at whatever their goals are) is what more of us are doing, but I think there is an emotional connection to “library” that will the name attached to our buildings for the foreseeable future.

Clearly, university libraries have a PR problem of significant proportions. University leaders are often accused of having an “Edifice Complex” that is more tied-in to fund raising than to the altruistic functions being discussed here. The perception of university libraries in the minds of those who matter is all important. We need to pay attention and come up with effective rather that self-satisfying responses to those perceptions.

I believe we must value the work of the librarians and all the people who work with them to provide the general public and academics with the information and knowledge they need to do their jobs and research. University leaders and the architects who design buildings and the construction firms who carry out out the building of libraries are sending a visible signal that here in this building, this library, community and scholarship is desired and promoted. Librarians and library personnel carry out the job of directing and encouraging the pursuit of knowledge for the very real and concrete reasons. Human beings need shelter. We can not sit in computer codes. Gathering together online is not the same as gathering together in a place where the building protects not only our human bodies from the elements but also our computers and other online equipment from the elements. Online Access (OA) does not make the need for building fantastic library buildings obsolete. OA is a tool. A library building is a tangible signal that serves both pragmatic purposes and protects the intangible and necessary work of scholarship.

Living 60 miles away from campus,as a student I appreciate very much the digital contents and support from my university library, and enjoy the space in the library one day a week when I can escape from my daily life and engage into reading both physical books and digital contents. Tuition fee is my hard earned money, which I rather see spent on facilities. Will it be reality that the tuition cost will be driven down even if they are not building libraries/ or buildings? Or could the money have been spent on other university budget? I have no means to undermine any other spending necessary at the university, but it feels many undermine the spending on libraries or library buildings. I can empathise the other argument that the money spent on building could have be spent on acquiring more library contents. Considering over 1000 students constantly occupy the newly built library, how can we justify it? Are there unspoken tensions between satisfying scholars’ needs and students needs?

Many arguments are based on the assumption of the rivalry between the physical library services and digital technology. Advance of technology will keep pushing the change of the physical boundary of library services and expand the digital space, however it should not have conflicts against the physical library as they serve different purposes. Whether libraries are driven by the change or willing to drive the change to remodel a cost effective and efficient service is essential.

Public libraries so far have not proactively used the advantages of digital advance to build cost efficient digital services, and some used digital contents to substitute physical services, driven by the budget. I would again make clear physical library services and digital services should complement with each other in any possible way, not rivalry against each other, same again as academic libraries, they serve different purposes. But sadly, we have seen so many make assumptions that if we promote digital services, we will not need physical libraries in future, if we keep physical libraries, we have to keep the traditional means of library to call it a library. Both can serve the core of libraries, and a new model need to be developed to take advantages of new technologies and make sure public to access the services with good value.

I do not have much insights on the agendas behind individual stockholders, neither I would expect equal access, but Open access will allow me to still have a sneak peek in the highly fenced academic world after I leave the university one day, after all the tuition fee has once contributed to the research process and library fund…

Comments are closed.