De-accessioning at Honnold-Mudd: The Euphemism that is a "Devastating Threat"

In January 2011, Honnold-Mudd Library began a process of “de-accessioning.”  The euphemism describes a process that all libraries across the country carry out periodically.  Because of space and budget limitations, books deemed unnecessary are often discarded to free up space for new books.  However, what began this semester at Honnold was a non-routine de-accessioning of the collection. In a letter dated March 21st to Claremont McKenna College President Pamela Gann and Dean of Faculty Gregory Hess, CMC's history department and 45 faculty members of the consortium called the process “forced de-accessioning” – a deeply harmful and permanent discarding of some of the library’s print collection.  The letter reads that the professors “can neither understand nor approve a process that amounts to a yearly ‘slaughter of the innocents.'”

Dealing with desperate capacity issues and a myriad of other setbacks, library administrators have instituted a more vigorous process of de-accessioning.  Faculty around the college, including CMC's Literature, Philosophy, and Economics departments, raised objections to various forms of downsizing in addition to the History department.  Many believe the policy neglects the integrity of the library and is detrimental to the consortium’s students and academics.

The de-accessioning of the print collection coincides with a move to decrease the number of online journals to which the library digitally subscribes.  With the downsizing, the Robert Day School of Economics (RDS) is losing access to important digital data sets published in several prominent journals and have voiced concern.

Philosophy faculty around the consortium are also drafting a letter of discontent.  Professor Paul Hurley, who teaches philosophy at CMC, explained that the, "proposed cutbacks include many journals without which it would simply be impossible to do effective research in philosophy, including several 'top ten' journals."  CMC's Literature Department has also drafted its own separate letter to the library.

Origins of the Crisis

Honnold, as early as 1988, was aware of the impending capacity issues.  With a collection of over 2 million volumes, Honnold has been, by some estimates, officially over capacity for eleven years.  Before the financial crisis, library officials developed a plan to build a permanent storage facility capable of holding up to 40% of the collection that would prevent any drastic measures of weeding (another commonly used euphemism for the discarding of books).  As the economy turned south, Professor Bill Alves of Harvey Mudd College and the chair of the Advisory Board for Library Planning (ABLP) explained, those plans were abandoned as budgets were cut.

The library is currently 150,000 books over capacity. "Our position," says library administrator John McDonald, "is that we need [to] deaccession approximately 20,000-40,000 books per year to slowly get down to capacity and to provide space for the more than 10,000-15,000 books we buy every year."  In the past month, faculty reviewers have deemed about 15,000 of the 37,000 books on review for this round of de-accessioning too valuable to discard.

While professors and students may have only found out about the "de-selection" of books this spring, the underlying tensions and problems are rooted in years of library policy decisions and consortium development strategy.

In 2007, the library administrators, without student or faculty involvement, notes Alves, created the Library Task Force Report.  The ABLP holds only an advisory role - CUC makes library policy, which is then approved by college presidents and deans.  The report echoed the plan to move 40% of the books off site, a plan that was put on hold during the 2008 financial crisis.  The report also called for an “expansion of user space” – a policy that drove the renovation of the first floor periodical shelves into the library café.  While increasing the study and social space of the library is a great boon for the consortium, it was intended to coincide with permanent and accessible off site locations that could hold over capacity books.  When that was canceled, the library, partially in reaction to the Claremont president’s 2007 endorsement of expanding “social space” at the library, forged ahead – further restricting Honnold-Mudd’s capacity.

In fall of 2009, the library began to downsize its collections of print journals.  Alves explained, “no one knew about it…[it had] faculty in an uproar.”  Most print journals, however, are also available online in various databases – JSTOR, Lexis Nexis, etc.  The library, at least digitally, still provides access to some of these journals.  But even that, is a tenuous excuse, especially when the library has begun to eliminate several digital subscriptions and discard almost 40,000 books. When Honnold’s books, many out of print or hard to find, are discarded, it is very likely they are gone forever, explained Professor Hamburg, a history professor at CMC.

Compounding the problem, the consortium, out of financial concerns, chose to close its satellite libraries in Spring of 2009.  This included two science libraries at Pomona and Mudd, as well as Scripps’ Denison library at the time.  Denison was spared until further measures could be taken, but that did not even come close to alleviating capacity issues in Honnold.  In addition, the library began to merge the Science library collections during the Summer of 2009 while also selecting books that were to be discarded, explained McDonald.

The Controversy

The library developed a time line for de-accessioning, but the ABLP was not aware of it until 2010.  The library’s space issues had grown so tight that for every new book purchased, an old one had to be removed directly off the shelves.  There was no longer any storage space left to hold over-capacity texts and the ABLP developed protocol that allowed for faculty review of the books chosen for de-selection.

Mr. McDonald explains the library set up a faculty review period of the de-selected books for January 2011-April 2011.  However, Professor Rosenbaum, a previous member of the ABLP and now sitting on a separate committee tasked with hiring a new Vice President for the Library, explains that CMC’s history department did not find out about the upcoming forced de-accessioning until a week or so before spring break.

McDonald, in an email, was adamant that the library had taken the necessary measures to inform the faculty of the upcoming de-accessioning.  “I cannot say why the History Department would say they only found out about it in the past month,” referring to the month of March.  However, Cody, Rosenbaum, and Hamburg all attest that they found out very recently – after the books had been selected and moved off site in preparation.  Professors can visit the Records Center to review the books and the library has created an online portal for browsing the candidates for de-selection.  Yet with tens of thousands of books on the intellectual chopping block and only limited time as a result of communication errors, many faculty feel that such steps are not adequate for what they see as a direct threat to our academic library.

This communication gap between the faculty and library, as well as students, is an ongoing issue.  There are, Alves explains, “problems aside from money,” underwriting the current round of problems.  The ABLP was created to combat faculty unhappiness with the library and recommend policy or planning options, but the board alone cannot dictate library policy.  When the board asked the library to delay de-accessioning, the library agreed at first, opting to move the candidates for de-selection to an off-site storage space until the faculty review period was over.

Mr. McDonald explains, “We leased the largest possible space we could find in April 2009.”  This space, the CUC Records Center in Upland, holds various consortium files and briefings and is now full.  Until a compromise on the de-accessioning process is reached, the library has determined it will no longer be leasing additional space for financial reasons.  While storage space itself in the Inland Empire may be affordable, the facility would require a staff and there would be numerous perceived logistical problems in moving some of the collection to the new site – whereas now it can be kept all together at one off-site location.

Faculty Pushback

Every professor I spoke with agreed that routine de-accessioning is a legitimate practice at all libraries.  However, this forced de-accessioning of such a large number of books is dangerous. Hamburg explains, “the crisis is just beginning.”

De-accessioning is severely harmful in several ways for the consortium, however it is perhaps the History department that will bear the brunt of the process.   Historians need the library’s physical collection for research, and valuable books are being lost.  Professors Rosenabum, Selig, Hamburg, and Cody (all CMC faculty) have all remarked that they discovered rich and important primary and secondary texts within the group of books that may soon be discarded.  While these professors can now flag a book as valuable and remove it from the pool, they can only do so in their field of expertise.  With 150,000 books over capacity, the consortium does not have enough academics to pour over each crop of candidates for de-selection every year.

Alves, and many others, noted there is significant opposition to these arguments.  Many, in the 21st century, think digital books can replace traditional print media.  This is, to some degree, the case with journals and archival newspapers, explained Hamburg.  However, the same cannot be said for books.  For one, the possibility of the all-digital library is still years away.  Private corporations like Google have undertaken the beginnings of a such a process, but it is far from replacing the value of a book and the importance of cataloguing knowledge by context and not searchable keywords.  The History department's letter states, “we are not living in the ‘radiant future’ of the all-digital library, but in the here-and-now of a library that has precious, and in our view irreplaceable sets of books, collected at great cost in a plan initiated with the foundation of Pomona College more than a century ago.”

There are also pragmatic arguments for maintaining an extensive physical collection and only conservatively downsizing duplicate or obsolete books.  For one, a strong library is key in attracting top tier faculty – the type of faculty that publish nationally recognized books and journal articles.  This sort of publicity will not only appeal to faculty but also attract elite students and perhaps contribute to a higher school ranking.

The Road Ahead

Despite the many problems with de-accessioning, the process, according to Dean Hess and John McDonald, will continue.  The library decided to delay execution of the plan until May 27th to allow for further faculty review and consideration.  Yet, all signs point to a continuation of a de-accessioning of the collection at the abnormal and damaging rate determined a year ago.  The faculty that signed the History department's letter called for an immediate moratorium on the process.  This request, however, has been denied by the library and the deans at consortium colleges.  Additionally, the letter requested the leasing of additional off-campus space to offer a long-term solution.  This request is still under consideration.

The library and CUC, explains John McDonald, is pursuing a permanent solution in order to bring a stop to the damage.  However, no tangible timeline exists and the nature of the library at a consortium – where no one takes direct ownership – does not point to any immediate financial backing for an on or off site expansion.  While a permanent solution may be a ways off, permanent damage to the consortium is not.  Research opportunities, academic reputation, educational abilities for the undergraduate students in all disciplines, and an already stressed relationship between the library and faculty could all be highly detrimental as the library continues to downsize its print collection and number of online journal subscriptions.