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Students rally to halt repurposing of Physics Reading Room

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Students study in the Physics and Astronomy Reading Room. The room is set to close on June 13, to make room for an eScience Data Science Studio. 

Photo by Anastasia Stepankowsky

Nearly 800 students and supporters have signed a petition on Change.org hoping to halt plans to repurpose the Physics-Astronomy Reading Room (PARR) into an eScience Data Science Studio.

PARR will close June 13 and the Data Science Studio will open in the fall.

The petition was created on April 2 by physics Ph.D. student Zohreh Davoudi. A Facebook page and website have since been made to draw support.

“The space is very quiet, it is good for students who want to focus,” Davoudi said. “This space is very isolated with a very beautiful view. There is a great collection of books. It isn’t large, but it is the type you need in the physics and astronomy department to do everyday research.”

The nearly 37,000 books, journals, atlases, reference books, and the majority of other items currently located in PARR will be moved to Suzzallo and Allen Libraries. The remainder will be moved to either Odegaard, Math, or Engineering libraries, according to Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics Librarian Anya Bartelmann.

Duplicate items will be moved to UW Libraries storage center, located in Sand Point. No items will be thrown away or sold.

Last November, the UW eScience Institute, University of California Berkeley, and New York University received a $37.8 million five-year grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

The repurposing of PARR was then agreed upon by the UW eScience Institute, the College of Arts and Sciences, the UW Libraries, and the Departments of Physics and Astronomy.

“[PARR] is just underutilized. Space is a priceless commodity, we have to use it efficiently,” said Steve Majeski, associate dean for research administration and infrastructure in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Graduate students and faculty were notified in January after the official agreement was signed, undergraduates were notified via email and posters in early February.

The Data Science Studio seeks to foster a collaborative environment connecting various disciplines.

“A lot of researchers and departments don’t get the chance to share their stuff,” Bartelmann said. “It will give people who are doing similar research an opportunity to connect and see how they can work together.”

Davoudi, on the other hand, believes PARR is a valuable space for students as it exists today.

“I know how much undergraduates appreciate this space,” she said. “Every day there are people enjoying it. It is quite a shock that the UW administration could make a better use of [PARR].”

Faculty and staff involved agreed early on to maintain the central study area in PARR, which is surrounded by windows overlooking Portage Bay.

“We agreed that in the remodel we would preserve as much we could. The view will stay the same. The reading room space will be nearly completely preserved,” Majeski said. “Students will have access and for a significant portion of the time that space will be available for quiet study time.”

Davoudi says it is less a matter of remodeling and more a lack of student-faculty communication.

“I want an explanation of why the students’ opinion is not an important enough matter, they need to explain why they don’t welcome the students’ ideas on issues that affect them the most,” Davoudi said. “I just want to hear the well-defined details and see some documents.”

Majeski says he understands these concerns.

“Space is a touchy subject, people get attached to space, I’ve learned that,” he said. “You are never going to have everybody in agreement on everything. It just doesn’t work that way. That’s just the nature of things. You have to serve the broadest interest of the institution.”

Studies done over the years by UW Libraries show activity in PARR has steadily decreased, Bartelmann said.

“We keep track of how many people come in and out and how many books are checked in and out. For years there was a 10 percent decrease,” Bartelmann said. “It makes sense to put them in a spot where they might get more use from the general campus. How many other departments have their own private little library?”

In 2009, the Physics and Astronomy Library was selected by UW Libraries to be closed, along with the Chemistry Library, School of Social Work Library, and the Fisheries/Oceanography Library.

Students petitioned in a similar manner encouraging the physics and astronomy department to maintain the space. The departments agreed to independently fund the library, but transitioned it into what is now known as the reading room.

Since this transition, the two departments have discussed repurposing the space.

Reach reporter Kate Clark at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @kateclarkuw 

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