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The State of the Library

By Willis E. Bridegam

At the Council meeting of April 24, 2004, Will Bridegam gave this report on the changes that have occurred in the Library during his nearly thirty years as Librarian of the College, and on its current state. At this juncture, with the Library having grown to more than one million volumes, and with Will’s retirement scheduled to occur on August 31, his overview of the Library’s situation is particularly timely.

Since this will probably be my last report to you, I thought that it would be interesting to make some comparisons between the Amherst College Library of 1975, when I arrived, and the Library as it is today.

Shortly after I arrived at Amherst, the Friends invited me to write a report on the current state of the Library, which was published in a small yellow pamphlet.  (Perhaps some of you will remember it.)  I would like to compare some of the information in it with current information about the Library to give you a sense of the progress the Library has made in the past twenty-nine years.

Let me address the subject of our library buildings first.  In 1975, the Robert Frost Library had been in use for just ten years.  Its 700 seats were more than ample for the College’s enrollment of 1,291 students.  The Frost Library had a capacity of about 800,000 volumes, but because the total collection contained just over a half million volumes, there was ample space on the shelves of levels A, B, 1, 2, and 3. Level C was not used for library purposes.  It was a locked, all-College storage area that contained pool tables, old lights, and the cast-offs of many academic departments.  There were many departmental libraries: Music, Art, the combined Physics, Chemistry, and Astronomy Library in Merrill, a separate Neuroscience Library, a Psychology Library, a Geology Library, and a Mathematics Library, plus a number of house libraries.  The Library’s collections were truly scattered around the campus.

Since 1975, there has been steady movement towards centralization of the Library.  The remaining collections in the dormitory libraries were absorbed into the Frost Library collection, as was the Art Library collection. In 1995, all of the science library collections except the Olds Mathematics Library were combined in an expanded and improved science library that was named for Harry Keefe, and recently, most of the mathematics collection was finally transferred to the Keefe Science Library.  However, we also opened a Depository Library in South Amherst and two new branch libraries, the Visual Resources Library in Fayerweather Hall and the Center for Russian Studies Library in Webster.

Major renovations of the Frost and Keefe Libraries in 1995 improved the functionality of those libraries, but they provided only minimal space for expansion of the collection.  Rather than approving a major addition to the Frost Library, the Trustees decided to fund the renovation of the bunker for use as an off-site storage area with a book storage capacity that would enable the Library’s collections to grow at a normal pace for the next twenty-five to thirty years. Unfortunately, some of the bunker space that had originally been allocated to the Library for collection growth was reassigned by the College for other storage purposes.  Recent estimates of the Library’s remaining shelving capacity in the bunker leads us to believe that we have space for about ten years of collection growth.

Collection development has been one of our major concerns over the years.  First, obtaining the necessary acquisitions budget to keep pace with the above-average price increases for periodicals, and especially science periodicals, has been one of our top-priority budgetary concerns each year.  Fortunately, our administration has always understood the importance of building into the Library budget increases large enough to cover the spiraling cost of journals and the need to support new faculty, new programs, and new courses with library acquisitions.  In fact, the Library ’s acquisitions budget has increased from $164,407 in 1975 to $1,850,232 in 2003.  That may sound like a an increase that has far outpaced inflation, but my economist friend Professor Frank Westhoff helped me put that increase in perspective by applying a Consumer Price Index (CPI) to it.  A budget of $164,407 for educational books and supplies in 1975 is equivalent to a budget of $ 1,101,527 in 2003, and when an added super inflationary factor for scientific periodicals is factored into the calculation, the current acquisitions budget of $1,850,232 has buying power that is not much greater than the budget of $164,407 in 1975.

In addition to obtaining the necessary budget to buy the library materials to support teaching and research at Amherst, another one of our major concerns has been the careful selection of materials for the collection.  In my 1975 report, I wrote, “Amherst is fortunate that its Library continues to benefit from the expert advice of faculty members.  They have played a major role in building excellent collections within their disciplines while the librarians have assumed overall bibliographical responsibilities.”  It is true that we still depend upon the Amherst faculty to recommend purchases of books and periodicals for the collection, but not nearly as much as we did in 1975 when their recommendations accounted for about two-thirds of the purchases we made.  During the past ten years, the librarians, with the encouragement of the faculty, have taken a steadily increasing role in selecting materials for the collection.  Librarian specialists called “liaisons” have accepted responsibility for making book, periodical, media, and database selections in specific fields, and have won the confidence of the faculty in doing so.  Today, librarians select about two-thirds of the materials we acquire, and that percentage becomes greater each year.

I think it is important to acknowledge that the Friends have played a very important role in the Library’s successful collection development program.  Each year, the Friends have allocated funds for Library purchases—for the Reference Collection, the Archives and Special Collections, the Visual Resources Center, and other parts of the Library.  Beyond that, the gifts of books, and sometimes whole collections, plus the establishment of endowed funds for the purchase of books and other Library materials, have been truly extraordinary.   Our Library has been fortunate to have been able to purchase the basic information materials it needed, but it has been unusually fortunate to have received so many valuable and useful gifts for its collection.  One has only to look at the “Gifts in Kind” section in Don Engley’s Twenty-fifth Anniversary publication to get a sense of some of these gifts up to 1993, and there have been many more since then.  I would contend that it is gifts such as these that have made the Amherst College Library collection one of the great liberal arts college library collections in the country.  

In an area where there are five academic libraries within fifteen miles of each other, it is impossible to consider collection development without reference to cooperative efforts.  In 1975 I wrote that the goal of Five College Library cooperation was “To coordinate these excellent library resources, to eliminate unnecessary duplication, and to strengthen the total area collection while respecting the identity of each of the participating institutions.”  That statement is still applicable.  There have been a few changes such as the dissolution of the Hampshire Inter-Library Center (or HILC) and its reinvention as the Five College Library Depository.  We have also continued to look for ways to improve the coordination of collection development among the Five Colleges, and we have made a good-faith effort to work cooperatively to purchase expensive research materials that, for the most part, are not duplicated locally.  In 1975 I reported that the combined holdings of the Five College Libraries were 2,835,694 volumes.  Today, our combined holdings are a little more than six million volumes.

Finally, on the subject of collection development, it is important to note that the Library has made every effort to evaluate and purchase useful and well-designed electronic databases that serve the needs of our faculty and students.  Although a steadily increasing portion of our acquisition budget is being spent for digital access to information, we have been constantly aware of our obligation to continue purchasing library materials in all formats. 

Use of a library is an important measure of its effectiveness.  In 1975 I reported that the Library’s circulation for 1974/75 was 60,742 volumes.  In 2002/03, the Library’s circulation totaled 159,674, an increase of 163% over the past 29 years.  More important, however, is the fact that while other academic libraries in the country are experiencing marked declines in their circulation rates, we had an overall increase of 4% in loans last year, and Amherst student loans increased by about 7%.

To look at just the circulation rates of printed materials in this age of electronic information would be a mistake.  To learn more about the use of our electronic databases, two of our librarians, Judith Nagata and Susan Kimball, compiled database usage statistics for our Library.  They found, for example, that during the 2002/03 fiscal year, there were 3,399 EconLit searches, 1,421 Art Index searches, 20,212 PsycInfo queries, 41,963 documents retrieved from Lexis/Nexis, and 21,543 entries from Oxford Reference Online viewed.  It is clear that these numbers also provide a measure of the Library’s success in providing information for its users.

In 1974, just before I came to Amherst College, my predecessor made two critical decisions for the Library.  The first was to have our Library join the OCLC system for cataloging thereby enabling our Library to share in the national cataloging effort.  Since 1975, the OCLC system has evolved from a cataloging service to a full-text information service, allowing more than 45,000 libraries in 84 countries around the world to locate, acquire, catalog, lend and preserve library materials.  The second critical decision was to substitute the Library of Congress Classification System for the Dewey Decimal Classification System, 98 years after Melvil Dewey created that system at Amherst College.  The people at the Dewey Classification System headquarters at Lake Placid, N.Y., have never forgiven us for that defection, but again, it was the right decision. The Library of Congress system has been far better suited to the needs of a rapidly growing academic library. 

Our Technical Services staff labored long and hard over the years to convert all of the catalog records we had on three-by-five cards to machine readable records, and by sheer determination, they finished that formidable project not too long ago.  Today, we are proud to have all of our cataloging records available on-line and to have next to no backlog of uncataloged library materials in the main collection.

For the past year, the Five Colleges have been considering how to replace the Innovative Interfaces Integrated Library System that has allowed them to provide coordinated access to cataloging, circulation, and other vital library records.  Research on the pros and cons of the available commercial systems has been completed, and now it is up to the Five College head librarians to select a system and recommend it to the Five Presidents for funding.  We hope to be able to install a new Five College system within the next year.

Reference services have changed as well during the past twenty-nine years.  When I came to Amherst, most of our reference service was reactive.  Our Reference Librarians, for the most part, expected faculty and students to seek their assistance at the Reference Desk.  Today, we continue to answer questions at the Reference Desk, but we also encourage our faculty to invite librarians to make specially tailored presentations in their classrooms.  Last year, our Reference Librarians answered an average of 243 reference questions in a typical week, and our librarians were invited to make 59 classroom presentations.  In addition, they scheduled 52 individual bibliographic appointments with students.  They also have created and maintained an outstanding Amherst College Library web site that serves as the guide and gateway to the Library’s resources and services.

In reference to the Library’s Archives and Special Collections I wrote in 1975, “Few undergraduate libraries have the resources to attract the attention of outside scholars.  The Amherst Library, however, is host to many each year who ask to consult its rare books, manuscripts, and archives.”  Since then, the Archives and Special Collections Department has grown at a rapid rate.  Through the generosity of the Friends and others, many new and valuable special collections have been added, and one major gift by Thomas Whitney ’37 resulted in the establishment of a separate branch library in Webster Hall.  But equally important, the archivists, librarians, and staff of the Archives and Special Collections have encouraged expanded use of these collections.  In fact, they have distinguished themselves for having promoted a high level of interest in the collections and a record of outstanding service to users.  Beyond that, they have developed a college records program that ensures the preservation of deposited administrative and departmental records.

One of the important changes that has been made in the last twenty-nine years has been the establishment of a closer relationship with the Folger Shakespeare Library. Shortly after I came to Amherst, President Ward suggested that I visit the Folger Library and meet its Director, O.B. Hardison. O.B. was cordial, but it was clear that he did not have a lot of interest in the Amherst College Library. There was considerable improvement when Werner Gundersheimer ’59 was appointed, but it was the appointment of Richard Kuhta as the Librarian of the Folger Shakespeare Library that made the great difference. Richard and I have worked together closely on a number of projects, including the very successful Folger Shakespeare Library Undergraduate Fellowship Program. And since Richard is here today, I want to thank him publicly for all he has done to bring the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Amherst College Library closer together.

Near the end of my 1975 report I wrote, “The Amherst College Library is a strong, viable organization with a dedicated staff ready to respond to the increasing demands of its users.”  There is no question that during the past twenty-nine years, the strength of the Amherst College Library has depended heavily on the quality of its staff and their dedication to the goals of the Library.  I am happy to say, without reservation, that I know of no finer academic library staff than the one we have right now.  They are innovative, hard working, service oriented, and committed to serving the needs of the Library’s users.  One could not ask for a better or more dedicated group of people. 

In the summary to my 1975 report, I said, “The Friends of the Amherst College Library play a vital role in facilitating alumni and friends’ involvement in library-related activities.”  Fortunately, that statement remains true, thanks to the loyalty and support all of you have given the Amherst College Library. But I want to take this opportunity to especially thank two people who have done so much for the Friends, Jack Hagstrom and Sam Ellenport. Their successive leadership of the Friends has made this organization the vibrant and effective organization it is today. Writing about the Friends twenty-nine years later, I would say, “The Friends of the Amherst College Library play an indispensable role in supporting the Library’s collections, programs, and services.  The Friends provide new ideas, encouragement, and monetary support.  They express their enthusiasm and appreciation for the work of the Library readily, and they take pride in knowing that they play an important role in helping to maintain the excellence of the Amherst College Library.”