Loss of the University of Texas’s Research Collection in Fine Arts
Professor John R. Clarke (Endorsed by the Art History Faculty)
Scholars and artists at the University of Texas at Austin are deeply anguished that 75,000 books, periodicals, and music scores have been removed from the Fine Arts Library to make room for offices and classrooms. Douglas Dempster, Dean of the College of Fine Arts, with the support of Director of UT Libraries and Vice-Provost Lorraine J. Haricombe, authorized the removal of these items to remote storage during 2016 to make space for an Institute of Design and Center for Arts and Entertainment Technologies on the library’s fourth floor. Since then Dempster has created a much larger School of Design and Creative Technologies and, unable to persuade the university to allocate or build space for his project, he has set his sights on the remaining stacks on the fifth floor of the library.
In neither case did he consult with the faculties nor the students of art history, music, studio art, theater, dance, and design who have depended on the research and teaching resources of this library for over 40 years.
The materials in question were moved to remote storage. All of the journals (except five key American art journals saved at the last minute by faculty who heard they were being boxed up) and some proportion of the books have gone to the “Joint Library Facility” in College Station, a project shared with Texas A & M University. According to the JLF website, volumes transferred there no longer belong solely to UT but enter into shared ownership with A & M and duplicate volumes are “de-duplicated.” Although Haricombe claims that materials can be retrieved within two to three business days, student and faculty researchers report wait times up to two weeks for items from the JLF. Add to these lengthy delays the irrevocable loss of contact with a carefully curated collection of print materials. Now, in many fields of art history, it is impossible to browse the stacks to check for related items and examine runs of periodicals—activities that are essential to scholarly research and creativity. Moreover, any of the books that have gone to the JLF have essentially been deaccessioned, even though many of these items were purchased with endowed faculty chair funds (well over $500,000) from donors who intended to support research in the faculty member’s field.
Faculty, students, and alumni are making their voices heard in the hopes of saving the remaining 85,000 books housed in the fifth floor of the Fine Arts Library. Dempster believes that he can boost sagging enrolments by appealing to students interested in hi-tech, entrepreneurial learning, as he stated in a proposal for a panel at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin: “As dean of a Fine Arts college at a Research 1 institution, I often wonder if now is the time to rethink our 100-year deference to the ‘fine arts’ at the expense of commercial, popular and practical forms of creative making. How does an arts college remain relevant in a technology-mad, data-crazed, entrepreneurially minded campus?”
Amazingly, Dempster is attacking the very rationale for the founding the College of Fine Arts in 1938, when the leadership of the University dedicated significant resources to all areas of the arts: music, visual art, theater, and dance. The conviction that a faculty of artists and historians devoted to the study of these disciplines would contribute significantly to the educational and research mission of the university has proven correct. The high rankings of many of the degree programs, resulting equally from the design of our programs, faculty productivity, and the success of our graduates, has also depended to a significant degree on the excellence and easy availability of our library resources.
Unlike the sciences, where digitization has made physical collections redundant, most of the research materials in the Fine Arts Library will never be digitized. In particular, for reasons of copyright, music scores, along with many important, heavily-illustrated books, will never be digitized. Furthermore, there is much scholarly research devoted to print culture; print books and periodicals belong to a design tradition that is an art form in itself. Yet Haricombe sees physical books as a burden for the library and a drain on its spaces: “Rethinking libraries will mean collapsing old paradigms and sacrificing some of the nostalgia that we may have for paper and silence,” she has stated. As every researcher knows, it’s not nostalgia, but the desire to create new knowledge that makes deep collections so exciting. Not so the bookless library.
The University of Texas at Austin, obsessed as it is with rankings, has already suffered grave damage from Dempster’s attack on the Fine Arts Library. Morale among faculty and students is understandably low; loyal alumni, many of them generous donors, are shocked; and now countless members of the university community have joined in protesting the loss of these valuable educational assets.
Problems of finding space for new programs are endemic to all institutions and must be made in consultation with the stakeholders, in this case the faculty and the students. Dempster, with Haricombe’s support, decimated the library with no such consultation. New space can be constructed or carved from underutilized areas of existing buildings—but not by destroying a major research collection.
It remains to be seen if any damage control is possible, or if we will see the remainder of the collection destroyed to make more raw space for Dempster’s hastily-created School of Design and Creative Technologies. It is paradoxical—and quite sad—that this new School is literally colonizing and destroying the very spaces where generations of scholars and students have made discoveries without digital technology. The books, works of art, music and much more produced by those of us teaching, studying, and performing in the College of Fine Arts are a testament both to its original mission and to its once-glorious library.