Vermont State College and University Libraries Propose Going All-Digital

The Vermont State College System will be combined into one larger umbrella organization as Vermont State University, effective July 1. As part of the reorganization, all books, newspapers or periodicals, and historic pamphlets in libraries throughout the new system will be provided in digital format only—a decision that has met with widespread disapproval among the system’s students, faculty, and staff.

Vermont State University logoThe death of print has been predicted since the arrival of the internet and e-readers, yet print has not only hung on—it’s still growing. Between the ongoing production of new books and periodicals and older materials that have not yet been digitized, the shift to an all-digital format remains in the future.

But in Vermont, the upcoming consolidation of several state colleges plans to include a shift to all-digital libraries. The Vermont State College System—Castleton University; Community College of Vermont (CCV) in Montpelier; Northern Vermont University in Johnson and Lyndon; and Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center, Williston and Norwich—will be combined into one larger umbrella organization as Vermont State University (VSU), effective July 1, to help strengthen each school’s finances and provide broader services across the academic community. As part of the reorganization, all books, newspapers or periodicals, and historic pamphlets in libraries throughout the new system will be provided in digital format only—a decision that has met with widespread disapproval among the system’s students, faculty, and staff. Changes are planned for the schools’ athletic programs as well, which will move from NCAA Division 3 sports to the U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association, a less rigorous league of junior and community colleges.

The February 7 announcement drew fire from a range of affected constituents. Charlotte Gerstein, reference and instruction librarian for Castleton University, noted that the idea was unpopular and drew immediate backlash. To begin with, local telecommunications infrastructure is insufficient. “We have issues with broadband,” she said. “It’s a rural state, a lot of poverty, and places where broadband hasn’t gotten to yet. So this is not the state that should be a guinea pig for this kind of proposal.”

Gerstein pointed out that forcing the university and college libraries to go fully digital would affect not only libraries in the new system, but public libraries throughout the state. “We have a really active lending system here,” she said. “We have tiny public libraries in Vermont. Some are one-person operations or run by volunteers. If somebody wants more than they can get from their public library, they request it through interlibrary loan, and it often comes from the state college libraries.” Going fully digital would shut down the schools’ ability to loan print materials—and if the system’s libraries are not able to loan, they’re not eligible to borrow through interlibrary loan, either.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, cost and budget factored heavily in the decision. Sarah Truckle, vice president of business operations for VSU, pointed to a commitment the state college system made to the Vermont legislature to find savings of $5 million per year for five years to reduce a structural debt. “In terms of our decisions, we’re looking at what does the university need in terms of our current and future students,” she said. “We’re weighing factors, including data that we’ve looked at in terms of circulation and student access, the availability of resources, and where our students access the majority of the resources, which is in the digital space.” She added that moving to an all-digital format would save the school system $500,000 annually.

Some of those savings would come from removing materials that aren’t used. “It’s important context that 58 percent of our collection has never been accessed,” she said, defining access as materials either being checked out or used in the library and set aside for staff to reshelve. “We maintain over 300,000 volumes across our five campuses. When we looked at the number of volumes accessed over the last five years, we’re at about 28,000 volumes across all campuses.”



Joseph Kinney, a third-year student majoring in history and working on an archaeological methods certification program at Castleton, sees many potential problems for students going forward. He pointed out that access to a variety of historical documents—many of which have never been digitized—is crucial to completing his thesis. He also worries that students with disabilities, including those who can’t use digital materials because of eye strain, difficulty tracking lines, blue light effects on ocular health, epilepsy, or struggles to focus, will be affected.

Kinney also pointed to the beauty of roaming the stacks when conducting research. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” he said. “In order to find a book online or in a database, you have to know that it exists already to search for it. Whereas in the stacks, if I go upstairs to the 900 section for history, I can just browse through any given subject or section, like Vermont, New England, U.S. history, Asian history. And if I find the book I was looking for, I can look to the right and left of it and find related books.”

Linda Olson is a Castleton faculty member in the sociology, social work, criminal justice, and women’s and gender studies departments, as well as the president of higher education for the American Federation of Teachers in Vermont. She is outspoken about the flaws in the student survey used to help justify the transition to digital.

“The survey was poorly constructed,” she said. “The students weren’t aware of what was going to be done with this data. [Administration] sent it out only via email, and they sent it out the week before finals. The students are a little busy at that time.” The problems weren’t only in timing, but in the pool of respondents. The survey was sent out across the university and college system; out of approximately 5,000 students, 500 answered. But the library at CCV is already fully digital, Olson noted. “So when you ask the question, ‘How do you use the library?’ those 27 percent of respondents only had access to a digital library. It obviously skewed the data.”

However, Vermont state colleges “have shared resources, historically and in the future,” Truckle noted. As part of the consolidation, library services will be shared across all campuses. “That’s why that survey was sent more globally,” to all member schools. She also noted that in the past several years, 96 percent of requests for materials have been for digital, and 4 percent for print.

James Allen, library director for the Vermont State College System, added that the survey, designed by a librarian from Castleton, was only one part of the overall decision-making process. The survey was months in the making, and involved a sub-team comprised of librarians, a system IT person, and a faculty member. “We went through discovery, basically saying what’s good, what’s bad, what are best practices,” he said. “How do we want [the system’s libraries] to look in the future?”

He conceded that the move to entirely digital libraries might be slightly premature. “We have data for every year, and the digital resources have taken a big upswing in usage” in the past decade, he said. “It might be a little early, but I think we’re at a point where more and more places might make these decisions.”

As to what will happen to the print books and periodicals, Truckle said they would not simply be disposed of. “We’ll send as many materials as we can to our local and community libraries within Vermont,” she said. “We’re also looking at opportunities for our [local] community to have access to those materials.”

And some of those items may remain with the colleges. “The administration has softened some of its stance,” said Allen. “We’re retaining physical materials in each of the libraries and working that out with the faculty and others.”

He pointed out that during the discovery phase of examining the system’s operations to find ways to streamline the budget, his sub-team talked with several other schools across the country of similar size—both in terms of student body and library collections—and library staff on campuses that have already begun transitioning to mostly- or all-digital offered information about their weeding process. But he added that the president of VSU, Parwinder Grewal, stated that if there are people who need print, such as students or faculty with documented disabilities, the system will make every effort to get those formats for them.

History major Kinney has doubts. “I’ll go to my grave being opposed to removing any kind of physical books entirely,” he said. “Do I support downsizing because we have things that haven’t been accessed in 50 years? Yes. But it should be done in moderation.”

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