CASTLETON, Vt. — Leaders of Vermont’s public colleges are taking an extraordinary step to save money: getting rid of most of the books in campus libraries.
Reducing the number of librarians who manage the 300,000 books across four campuses could save the system $500,000 annually, the college system’s leaders say, as part of their effort to close a $25 million structural budget deficit.
But many students and professors are appalled by the decision, which they consider a dagger to the intellectual heart of the system. (The public college system doesn’t include the University of Vermont, which is separately run.)
Protests have erupted, and the faculty have taken a vote of no confidence in the system’s leadership.
“How can you defend a higher education institution without books?” said Preston Garcia, a biology professor at Castleton University, a public liberal arts school in western Vermont. Garcia also serves as president of the faculty assembly. “It’s an embarrassing decision. Once you get rid of materials, they are gone.”
The move comes as campuses across the country recalibrate their offerings to reduce costs and serve a digital world. At the same time, fewer students are gravitating to the humanities, and more students and parents are questioning the value of a college degree.
Although the Vermont system may be one of the first in the nation to take such a dramatic step, higher education watchers say campus libraries are increasingly being targeted for dramatic changes. University of California Berkeley removed 135,000 books from its library in 2017 to make more study space for students, and in 2014, Florida Polytechnic University opened a “bookless library” that resembles an Apple store.
“There has been a shift away from physical items in libraries to electronic items,” said Richard Garrett, chief research officer at the higher education consulting group Eduventures. “But it is a radical move for a state institution with physical campuses to move [its library] to fully online.”
Parwinder Grewal, president of three public colleges that will soon be called Vermont State University, said a digital library complements the system’s plan to offer more classes online in an effort to attract more students looking for flexible options. For students on campus, Grewal sees more value in a planned $500,000 library renovation that will replace stacks with study space.
About 58.6 percent of the books in all the campus libraries, he said, have never been taken out.
“We can’t afford to have that,” Grewal said.
In response to the outcry, campus leaders backtracked to say some books would remain. A spokesperson for the system said Friday that the libraries will keep about 12 percent of the current collections.
But, Garcia said, “People are as upset as they have been.”
The library decision follows a mandate from state lawmakers to reduce expenses and grow revenue at the state colleges in exchange for more state funding. To cut administrative costs, the system is merging three public institutions: Castleton University, Northern Vermont University, and Vermont Technical College will become a single institution as of July 1. The state college system also includes Community College of Vermont.
Grewal sees an opportunity to rebuild a university “from the ground up” that’s more focused on preparing students for jobs needed in Vermont.
“This university will look so different and [will be] so relevant to the current needs of the state,” Grewal said.
On a recent weekday at Castleton, which was founded as a grammar school in 1787, the main entrance to the Calvin Coolidge library was festooned with handmade signs reading “Save the books,” “Books save lives,” and “Books are history.” Whiteboards throughout the main floor were covered in scrawled reasons for saving the books.
Some students and faculty expressed concern that an online library would limit access to books and knowledge in a rural state like Vermont, where many residents still lack Internet service. Others mourned the loss of physical books and worried about how students and faculty will access texts that are not available online. A spokesperson for the state colleges said they are working to provide students with Internet access at home.
“Vermont is not a good place to be a guinea pig for this,” said Charlotte Gerstein, a librarian at Castleton. “There’s not broadband throughout [the state].” And, she added, “a lot of our students with learning disabilities have told us that they need to read in print.”
If study space is lacking, Gerstein said, the librarians, with help from professors, could remove thousands of outdated books and resources from the library to make more room.
“We want to have a comprehensive collection,” Gerstein said. “And there are lots and lots of materials that are not provided online because no one’s digitized them yet.”
Allison Fiske, a mother of three studying to become an end-of-life caretaker at Castleton, said she never would have chosen to attend Castleton if it lacked a library with a sizable collection of real books.
The library “is the heart of the community,” Fiske said. “This isn’t how Vermont does things. We want our voices heard, and they went right over us and said, ‘This is what we are doing.’ ”
Rowan Kidder, a fourth-year student wearing a dark-green Castleton shirt, said his peers and faculty in the history department were disappointed with the decision to remove physical records.
“Books are how you record history,” Kidder said, “I’m a history major. I need primary sources.”
College enrollment in Vermont has been declining for years, and for decades Vermont has been among the states contributing the least to public higher education in dollars per full-time student. To compensate, Vermont’s public colleges raised tuition over time, adding to enrollment challenges.
Other states, including Maine, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, have also consolidated struggling public campuses and programs, an evolution that higher education experts say will accelerate as colleges continue to face falling enrollment.
Vermont’s small population of roughly 645,000 limits the tax revenue available for public services, including education.
Tim Donovan, the former chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges, recalls legislators telling him that funding for higher education often ranked below other priorities because colleges could always raise tuition if they needed money.
“You do that incrementally year over year, and the compounded impact of that is huge,” he said.
In 2020, former chancellor Jeb Spaulding proposed closing three public campuses after the pandemic worsened the system’s finances. Following public opposition, Vermont lawmakers approved emergency funding and formed a committee to study a path forward.
The committee proposed the merger, and Grewal was hired last summer to lead the new institution.
“I knew that it was going to be a difficult job,” said Grewal, who previously helped merge multiple Texas campuses to form the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Still, the library decision caught faculty, staff, and students off-guard. Several campus librarians were informed last month that they would no longer have jobs after July 1.
“It was just out of left field,” said Garcia.
The library renovations and disposing of the books should be completed by fall, leaders said. Academic departments will have the opportunity to take books, and then the colleges will see if other libraries or nonprofit groups are interested, said Sharron Scott, the state colleges’ chief financial and operating officer.
Some libraries in Vermont, though, have already told local media outlets they don’t have room on their shelves.
“A last resort would be recycling,” Scott said.