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Libraries lost to budget cuts

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Pamela York, head of the Physics-Astronomy Library (PAL), walks through one of the library’s aisles on the sixth floor of the Physics-Astronomy Tower. If several on-campus libraries are consolidated, all books from the PAL will be moved to Suzzallo and Allen libraries.

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Pamela York, head of the Physics-Astronomy Library, stands in the library’s reading room. Many students in the Physics and Astronomy departments study in the reading room because it’s quieter than other study areas on campus.

Last Tuesday, students, faculty and staff in the physics department received a surprising e-mail from Lizabeth Wilson, the dean of University Libraries.

The e-mail informed those in the department that the Physics-Astronomy Library (PAL), which is located in the Physics-Astronomy Tower, will undergo a consolidation and closure during the summer. The Fisheries-Oceanography and Chemistry libraries will be merged alongside the PAL into a research commons in Allen Library.

Students and staff of the physics and astronomy departments were shocked by the news.

“The library is irreplaceable because it is compact, subject-specific and conducive to browsing in a way that general-purpose libraries, like Suzzallo, are not,” wrote Mike Famulare, a graduate student in the physics department, on a GoPost thread created for students and staff to provide testimonials as to why the library should not be closed.

However, the move toward closing and merging some of the less frequently used libraries on campus has been a long-term goal for the UW libraries, starting in 1995 with the merging of the Geography, Philosophy and Political Science libraries into Allen.

In mid-January, a Task Force on New Models of Service and Delivery was assigned the task of recommending which libraries could be merged. On April 24, the task force recommended in their final report that the natural science branches — which include the Fisheries-Oceanography, Physics-Astronomy and Chemistry libraries — consolidate.

The task force decided which libraries were apt for closure based on extensive surveys that determined physical library use and how much of the information found within the departments’ libraries was accessible online, said Cynthia Fugate, associate dean of Research and Instructional Services for UW libraries.

When the report was first released, the Drama and Social Work libraries were scheduled to be consolidated as well. According to the report, the estimated one-time cost of consolidating these five libraries would have been about $400,000, with the annual cost savings after five years being between $400,000 and $450,000. A new report detailing the costs of consolidating only three of the initial five has not yet been released.

Collections from the three libraries would first be moved to Kane Hall and then moved into their new location during the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

To make up for the three departments’ loss of their respective libraries, a new research commons in Allen Library South would be created as a “technology-rich space for collaboration for all disciplines,” according to the April report. From usage data and in-library surveys, Wilson determined that the most heavily used library resource for both faculty and students is, in fact, the virtual library.

“The budget situation has accelerated our movement in that direction,” Fugate said.

Expedited action toward consolidation became necessary when the UW libraries, along with the rest of the university, received a 25 percent budget cut (mitigated to 12 percent with an expected tuition increase of 14 percent next year). This cut in funding required swifter action than either the administration or the affected departments had anticipated.

In response to the closure recommendation, the physics and astronomy departments developed an Emergency Library Committee to save their library, said Pamela Yorks, head librarian of the PAL.

The Web site, titled “Save our PAL,” states its purpose as a resource “relating to the misguided attempt by the UW libraries to take away one of our primary teaching and research facilities.”

Concerns voiced in online forums are being echoed by faculty in the department as well.

“[Students], and we the teachers, are heavy users of the physical space of the library and the physical materials, such as older journals, monographs and reference matter,” said David Pengra, senior physics lecturer.

Pengra acknowledged that although a large amount of material is accessible online, this material is not a suitable substitute for the library’s extensive printed materials.

In the 23 pages of testimonials, students and staff said that closing the Physics-Astronomy Library will lead to a loss in the UW’s recruiting and retention advantages in these two departments, and that, without a library, both of the departments would lose prestige.

“Electronic resources are excellent at bringing material to a researcher’s desk,” said Charlie Hagedorn, a graduate student in the physics department. “But, they do not replace a library.”

Reach contributing writer Brian Byrnes at development@dailyuw.com.

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