Students at the University of Denver Want Books

Here is a guest post from Julie Teglovic, an MLIS student at the University of Denver, where students have been protesting a decision regarding the library…

Library as Space: University Students Want Books

This April, the paper books at the University of Denver’s Penrose Library began a move into a storage facility 10 miles away in preparation for the library’s gutting and renovation. I, like most students not hearing otherwise, assumed that the move would be temporary, until I happened across the “Keep the Penrose Library Book Collection on Campus” Facebook page ( in early May. According to this page, secret dealings had been made “behind closed doors and at the last minute” by the university Chancellor and Board of Trustees, culminating in a decision to retain 80% of the books at the storage center and return 20% to campus after the renovation.

About six students and a few faculty members, led by undergraduate English and Psychology major Brandon Reich-Sweet, united to disseminate information through the Facebook page and a website ( They distributed online and paper petitions, contacted news outlets and university officials, made t-shirts and signs, and organized check-out/sit-in protests in and around the library. Because of these efforts, as of right now, university administration has agreed to return 50% of the books to campus (this is according to library faculty and student organizers; no official communication to students has been released).

Concerns over environmental sustainability and transparency were important to the group’s arguments (books will be driven by truck to and from the storage facility indefinitely, and neither students nor library staff were asked for input on the initial decision), but perhaps more interesting here are this group of non-librarians’ deep concerns about the library, its space, and its purpose.

I’ve read a lot in library school thus far about adapting to survive, about the need to see the library as community space, meeting space, and cutting-edge technology space. As gaming space, video-editing space, music-recording space. I’ve taken classes on ebooks and seen the skills requirements for programming languages and systems analysis on academic librarian job descriptions. Librarians want to redefine their collective image, to be tech-savvy and rethink education; we champion webinars and iSchools and digital repositories as solutions. Penrose is certainly not the first academic library to move a large number of books off-campus. Some students supported the Chancellor’s original decision and spoke out in the student newspaper The Clarion, asking why a book that’s never been circulated should gather dust. They argue that the way students learn has fundamentally changed in the last 20 years, and by designing a library with more collaborative learning space, the university is responding to this change.

Yet the (mostly undergraduate) students protesting—the library users, not the librarians—organized this movement and voiced—loudly—a different opinion: they want the books. As symbols of academic rigor, as visible history, as an elegant reminder of long-form reality itself to Brandon—the pages mean something to them. The millennials we jump to categorize as attention-deficient and gadget-crazed are perhaps more attuned to the emotional, existential, and intellectual redemption that a brick of words, a collection not on a screen, can provide than we as a profession would like to acknowledge. “The decision by a group of number-obsessed business-types to remove almost all of the books from a LIBRARY was really just a small symbol of a broader cultural trend,” Brandon says in an editorial for the Clarion. He writes about “Things without meaning…the terrible anxiety that comes standard with existence in modern human society…The victory of the Save Penrose movement then is not only one of logistics but one of meanings.”

-Julie Teglovic

2 comments on “Students at the University of Denver Want Books

  1. So much “cutting edge” LIS literature is littered with the speculation “users want” and “user-centered”…too often with scant evidence to back up such claims. It’s refreshing when users actually rear up and speak and let their actual opinions be known in this fashion.
    And it must be privately horrifying to the usual techno-capitalist boosters who profess to be able to intuit what users “really” want all the time.

    While perhaps the students’ reactions aren’t entirely rational and their attachments to the stacks is arguably more symbolic and emotional than practical, it is their genuine expression of what they want and needs to be taken heed of. There may be some crude calculus in the minds of students that runs something like this; “Big, well stocked library of some vintage = I’m getting a good education.”; The more books you remove, the more anxiety you create to a point where if you only have 20% of the total collection on-site and the rest is all computer tech, students begin to feel their institution is turning more and more into a for-profit, “fly by night” kind of biz. I know I would…that’s the feeling I get when I try to put myself into their shoes and minds.

    It’s also a little disheartening that more graduate students aren’t part of the protest, since they, more than undergrads, should be more keenly aware of the limitations of technology and the need to fall back on print resources during the course of their research.

    Anyway, this is an important story and thanks for posting it for Library Juice.

  2. I guess I shall show my age by saying a library is a collection of books that can take you on an adventure anytime–us “old-timers” will never be able to impart to the young how when we open a book–the smell starts you on your adventure–I can surely tell you there is no aroma associated with a computer screen and opening a book and loseing yourself in it is still one of my great joys in this life.

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