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By Pat Schneider, featured in the June 4, 2017 Capital Times

Carrie Kruse (photo credit Syiyna Bashir, Cap Times)

When hundreds of students entered College Library in December 2014 for a silent die-in protest, it not only brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the University of Wisconsin campus, it also informed an emerging “beyond neutral” practice at the library.

That movement recognizes the social justice role of libraries, a reflection of the way in which society as a whole is looking at systemic privilege of some groups, said Carrie Kruse, director of College Library, located in Helen C. White Hall, 600 N. Park St.

Kruse will make a presentation on the die-in and its aftermath Friday at the Lake Superior Library Symposium in Duluth, MN.

The socially driven evolution of college library practices comes at a time when their physical structures also are under scrutiny.

Some college libraries across the country are jettisoning book collections to provide more space for students to study — together and alone. At UW-Madison, the campus’ whole complement of 42 libraries is being evaluated as part of a campus-wide planning process.

Kruse, who jokes she became a librarian despite the fact that her mother is one, started working in libraries in high school shelving books at the Madison Central Library.

Also the project manager for the campus library master plan, Kruse says that despite more materials becoming digitized and available anywhere, college libraries remain vibrant places that are vital to education.

For proof of that, she need look no farther than the portable whiteboards that students roll all over College Library. “We come in in the morning and we see marketing plans, chemical formulas, computer science logic. There is evidence of work happening in all fields,” Kruse said.

Here’s more on what she had to say about campus libraries in the 21st century and the apocryphal ranking of College Library as at top pick-up spot nationally.

Where does College Library fit in the constellation of 42 libraries on the UW-Madison campus?

College Library’s role is in providing services to undergraduate students. That’s why it was built. There was a trend of building undergrad libraries at large research universities in the 1970s, partly in response to a huge growth in enrollment in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There also was a concern over keeping research materials safe for the real scholars — Memorial Library used to have closed stacks — and the new libraries provided study space, course reserves and support for undergraduate classes.

I understand College Library became known as a pick-up place among students.

That is a popular reputation. We’re fine with the reputation being social. We have concern around the urban myth that there is an actual article that claimed College Library was one of the top 10 nonalcoholic pick-up places in the country.

Urban myth?

The article does not exist. Librarians have searched high and low, and we know how to search. Some people say it was in Playboy, some people say it was in Rolling Stone; I’ve heard people say Jay Leno said it on TV. We are a library where people can collaborate and talk while they’re studying. But I often say the best kept secret about College Library is that we also have quiet study space.

Tell me about the College Library collection.

The main book collection is about 70,000; it is just under 100,000 including all media. The materials support undergraduate studies. We also have some browse-able collections to support particular programs: an ethnic studies collection, and a gender and women’s studies collection. They were both created in the 1970s, when it was necessary to lift up and bring into focus areas that the academy had not been paying attention to previously. We have a small recreational collection of books and materials for fun: video games, graphic novels, travel books.

What about library use in recent years?

Most libraries measure usage through security gates. They count the number of bodies going through, but they don’t tell you how long people are in the library or how many are in the library at same time. We’re in the neighborhood of 900,000 to 1 million gate counts a year. We were over 1 million after we went to 24 hours — we’re about 900,000 now and we were at that in the 1990s. The students will tell you there’s never enough space in College Library, that it’s hard to find a table. Most libraries are seeing a slight trend down.

Tell me about the “die-in” protest in the library that you’ll talk about at the symposium.

This was around the time of the buildup of Black Lives Matter as a national movement. We knew about it in advance; it was publicized on social media and they said they were going to do a 20-minute die-in and leave. It went down exactly as described. It was during final exams, so the protest was a juxtaposition of the stress of the end of the semester with the stress of their lives. One chant was: “Finals on your mind. Black lives on mine.”

That spoke to me. It articulated that issue in a way I hadn’t heard before.

Why do you think students protested at College Library?

We’re the library where people were studying for finals and they wanted to make a point about this experience for people of color.

How did you prepare for the protest?

It was a Sunday evening protest and we didn’t have enough notice for staff to meet, but we communicated. We had no intention of trying to prevent it. We had discussed flash mobs before and decided that because they were brief, we would let them happen and call the UW Police if we needed to. We understood the goal of the protest and expected it to be short-term.

There was a second protest in April 2016, when protesters briefly occupied part of the library following the arrest of a student in connection with anti-racist graffiti on campus.

That one we didn’t expect. I was out of town, but followed it on Twitter and videos and was in contact with staff here. Protesters were primarily just inside the first-floor entrance, using a megaphone to lead chants. The staff who were here were working hard to make sure there was a safe exit so that students who felt they were being disrupted enough that they wanted to leave had a way out.

So what has been the impact of the protests on College Library?

And what else does College Library do?

We definitely have taken steps to reach out to partners — like the LGBT Campus Center — that support campus communities. We have staff training with a focus on issues of concern for trans community. When we give directions to the bathrooms, we try not to make assumptions about which bathroom someone would use. If the picture or name on an ID card doesn’t match the person, we confirm on the last name; that usually doesn’t’ change.

This is a choice to go out of our way to recognize that certain communities may need extra attention to feel welcome.

How does that fit in with the conference?

The theme of the conference is “Beyond Neutral.” That’s a conversation happening in the profession. Libraries have a long-standing ethic of “We serve everyone.” Issues about diversity and inclusion are part of what we do. There is a fresh lens being placed on that. Libraries are actually a little bit about social justice. “Neutrality,” by itself, is the status quo. Now we are asking, if the status quo is unfair to a group of people, what is our role in supporting the status quo?

That’s something people are starting to explore and understand in different ways. We collectively as a society are looking at what are the systemic things that support unfairness.

What do you hope conference attendees take away from College Library’s story?

Part of it is about the reflective practice that we use in staff professional development. When something happens, we reflect on it and try to learn from it. Part of it a willingness to put ourselves out there with more explicit statements and displays. The die-in brought a national conversation into our everyday lives in a way that wouldn’t have been if we were just reading about protests that happened elsewhere. So we want to share that with libraries that may not have that happening in their space.

You also are serving as project manager for the campus libraries master plan process. What precipitated the long-range look at library facilities?

It’s part of campus-wide effort. It was done for the student unions and housing and now for schools and colleges. Part of it is an effort to think long-term. It is easy with limited funding to see only immediate needs when there is an opportunity to renovate or expand.

What is guiding the reevaluation of library spaces?

We’re asking: “What is the experience of people in our spaces and what are the architectural realities of our spaces?” We are looking at how much space in libraries is about housing collections, particularly in fields in which so much use of resources has moved online. We are looking at “What is the library’s role in preserving collections and providing ongoing access to print collections?”

Libraries on campus might give up their collections?

It may be not every library keeps the same things. Libraries across the Big Ten are thinking they may not each have to keep a full print run of a journal if, say Indiana, is keeping a full run and there is an agreement on how people at other universities can access it.

At College Library, we’ve been de-duplicating for decades and moving things that have been digitized off campus. And then you have the humanities, where fewer materials have been digitized and the materials are the research. People need to see the political pamphlets published in the 1980s and the encyclopedia from the 1950s.

What are some possible big changes that might come out of the library master plan?

One scenario is that College Library would move to a new building on the south side of campus in 20 or 25 years. The notion is that south campus is the growth area and we need a library presence there.

As opportunities arise to partner and bring in things that support student success — like the WisCel (Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning) Center — and we have space for such shared multi-use facilities, I expect that to continue at College Library.

Memorial Library has a huge footprint for its collection. That is the library more likely to be transformed in the long term. But it is a Frankenstein building with pieces stitched together over decades. The master plan is helping us think about what we want people to experience when they walk in.

For example, the special collections at Memorial are now in a “penthouse” location which makes them invisible. Research libraries are looking at how to bring special collections and archives into more visible locations because those things are what make them unique.

What about the other 40 libraries on campus, most of which are highly specialized, correct?

Yes. It is not feasible to continue all those libraries as print collections. The spaces can be repurposed, with library staff still serving faculty, but not running small libraries inside academic departments. It is about efficiency in the use of space and librarian time.

Are faculty worried about this change?

Some are. Some are content to get all their journal subscriptions delivered online; others are not. Some think “I don’t use the library,” when they are using library resources everyday online.

I imagine many students can get all their study materials on their laptops. Why are they going to the library?

That’s a question, isn’t it? I think there is still something incredibly symbolic about going to the library. There are lots of study spaces on campus and I think that is part of the slight decline in use that we see. But there are two things we hear from students: Going to the library helps them focus; and they like to be around other people who also are studying. Students work on collaborative projects here, but we see a lot of students studying alongside each other; not necessarily on the same project.

There’s still a really strong sense of “I go to the library to get my work done.” And it’s deep, amazingly deep.