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Long overdue: Lack of funding creates challenges for Bird Library

After years of construction, Syracuse University students and faculty were able to use the newly renovated Carnegie Library Reading Room at the start of the spring semester.  The new space featured an architecturally restored room that provided a quiet place to study.

“It’s an exquisite renovation. It’s just a lovely space,” said Deborah Pellow, chair of the University Senate Committee on Libraries.

Just past the Quad sits E.S. Bird Library — which is 50 years younger than Carnegie, but contains some furniture that’s older than its counterpart and thin collections of academic resources such as maps, journals and other research materials.

In a report given at the Jan. 15 University Senate meeting, Chancellor Kent Syverud and Vice Chancellor Eric Spina were in attendance when Pellow told the audience that university libraries have suffered a long history of neglect. She called the library system “grossly inadequate for a university with the size and ambition of SU.”

Pellow compared SU’s library funding to 13 other private research universities including Duke University, Cornell University, Northwestern University and Boston College. Of the 14 schools in the comparison, SU ranked last in library expenditures in 2009-2010 with $18,372,392 versus Cornell, which had the highest expenditures of $44,199,742.

In order to reach the median expense range of peer institutions on that list, Pellow said the university would have to add almost $9 million in funding.

In the report, Pellow said the lack of funding and neglect for libraries has worsened in the last 10 years.

“I believe that under Cantor’s administration, the focus and the energy, money or not money, was on the community, not the university,” she said. “So I think in that sense we fell even more behind.”

Sam Gorovitz, a philosophy professor, said he believes the outgoing administration prioritized other expenditures.

“Had there been higher regard for the library system more would have been invested in that versus things with greater PR value but lower academic value,” Gorovitz said.

Pellow said two main aspects of Bird can use improvements: the physical facilities, such as furniture and paint, and the library’s collections.

She said when an outside review committee came to look at Bird’s condition in 2012, they were dismayed by the state of the library.

A year and a half later, Pellow has seen little progress.

“The facility is awful,” she said. “It’s worn and awful. And it has to be dealt with.”

Collections also need to be bolstered, she said, and interim dean of libraries K. Matthew Dames has made this a top priority.

She added that faculty members are also concerned about updating the collections. But she said the libraries need money to improve both the facilities and the collections.

Graduate students are also affected by the lack of academic materials, said Patrick Neary, president of the Graduate Student Organization.

Neary said many graduate students rely on journals and books in the libraries for their research, and when the libraries are underfunded, it affects their ability to do their work.

“If the university physically doesn’t have those (materials) it’s a huge hindrance,” he said.

Neary added that the university needs quiet study spaces, even after the renovations on the Carnegie Reading Room have been completed.

However, libraries appear to be headed in a better direction under SU’s new chancellor, Kent Syverud.

Syverud sees the library as a priority, Pellow said, something that she believes reflects well for everyone at SU.

“I think it’s fabulous we have a chancellor who cares about the library,” she said. “It’s better for (faculty), it’s better for students and it’s better for the university. It will help the university in untold ways.”

Pellow said she thinks Syverud’s attitude regarding the library will help solve the lack of funding.

“When you care about something and it needs money, you find it,” she said, adding that Syverud has made it clear he’ll find money to improve the library.

Pellow said she isn’t sure where the money would come from. She said the library has never been allowed to have a capital fundraising campaign, but she believes many people, including herself, would value giving money to the library more than to new construction projects.

Regardless of access to funds, Pellow said it’s tough to make progress on certain aspects of Bird.

She said in some cases moving forward with library projects depends on other projects on campus, such as renovations to the Schine Student Center.

Pellow said if new study spaces are added in Schine, it would affect the work done with study space at Bird. She said work on the library and other campus buildings “have to be done in concert.”

Some aspects of the library are ready to move forward, including handling a chemical contaminant called polychlorinated biphenyls — or PCBs from Bird’s basement. Once the PCBs are dealt with, renovations to turn the basement into an updated space can continue.

Pellow said the chemicals should be dealt with by July 1.

Once the university moves forward with improving the library and increasing funding, improvements will be made to what Pellow and Gorovitz believe is a critical part of the university.

“It’s not just a building,” Gorovitz said, “A building is just a place. It’s important because of what’s happening in that place.”

Gorovitz said when the library isn’t up to standards, student research suffers, faculty members struggle to get materials and groups can’t find collaborative workspaces.

Pellow said the quality of a school’s library can affect the university’s ranking, research, recruitment and retention of faculty.

She said the library can benefit the whole university, calling it a “core to academic enterprise.”

“You can have a cup of coffee at Schine or at Maxwell,” Pellow said. “There are all kinds of places you can go for that, but there are certain things you can only do at the library and that needs to be focused on.”

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