McGill's Islamic Studies library.

Culture | In defence of our Islamic Studies library

Speaking against blanket solutions and austerity measures

Back in November, The Daily reported on how the apparent shift from print to electronic sources may not be as positive as it first appears (“In defense of our books,” Culture, November 3, page 22). However, the assumption of a popular desire for more electronic sources is what caused the McGill library administration last semester to instate large, across-the-board cuts to library budgets that were aimed at funding for print materials. This, along with the closing of the Education Library, the merging of the Life Sciences Library with the Schulich Library, and the general threat of austerity economics, makes it imperative to write now in defence of our libraries.

One library that has been particularly affected by the cut to print acquisition funding is the McGill Islamic Studies Library (ISL), given its impressive collection of texts from across the globe that are not available digitally. The ISL would also be particularly inconvenienced by the proposed, haphazard removal of its print sources to off-site storage. While the digitization of resources and a change in the setup of library spaces are not necessarily negative changes in and of their own, it is imperative that these changes are approached for the right reasons and in the right ways, by listening to those who would be directly affected.

According to the vision statement given in the library administration’s 2014 feasibility study, “McGill University’s print collection is used less and less frequently while occupying prime real-estate in downtown Montreal.” The vision statement asserts, “plans need to be developed to relocate the majority of the print collection to appropriate storage while retaining a minimal presence of print books in high demand in the various branches.”

There is an underlying assumption behind these decisions that students want more study space as opposed to access to physical books. Michael DeRamo, a Master’s student at the Institute of Islamic Studies who attended the Islamic Library Advisory Committee meeting on October 30, asserts that we must first question this notion that print collections are being accessed less frequently. “You notice [the administration] did a survey at the end of last semester [asking] ‘what’s your reason for coming to the library?’ “When the results came out, it was like 6 per cent of the people were going to the library to look at books, [and] the vast majority was going to study. Well, they distributed that survey in the middle of exams, so of course everybody is going there to study.”

In order to make room for this study space, McGill libraries would have to move books from their open stacks into off-site storage vaults. However, the proposed process by which the books that allegedly ‘no one uses’ would be selected for storage is faulty at best.

“There [have been] suggestions that there was no opposition to [the closing of the Education Library] or that the library administration hasn’t heard any discontent. […] We have to think about whether this is true or not, whether the closing of libraries like the Education Library is remembered, whether it’s produced a decrease in quality for scholars of education. – Pasha M. Khan, chair in Urdu Language and Culture at the Institute of Islamic Studies

According to DeRamo, “They’re going to look at statistics of the last time a book has been checked out, and the one[s] that [haven’t] been checked out since 1995 will go to the high-volume storage.” Problematizing this, DeRamo added: “But they don’t know if people are using that book in the library, you know, maybe it’s a big book […] You go to the library and use it then put it back on the shelf.”

With regard to structural causes behind these library changes, Frances Calingo, a U3 student in Middle East Studies and Anthropology, told The Daily, “This seems to be a part of greater austerity measures, which makes me very uncomfortable and frankly scared.” Calingo explained, “Part of the austerity measure is cutting back on things that aren’t seen as ‘essential’ or ‘necessary.’ […] What is starting to happen is putting more time and more resources and more money into libraries that are larger and that people think are more used.”

Once libraries are closed, the history around their closures can start to be rewritten. As Pasha M. Khan, the chair in Urdu Language and Culture at the Institute of Islamic Studies, told The Daily when asked about previous library closures, “There [have been] suggestions that there was no opposition to [the closing of the Education Library] or that the library administration hasn’t heard any discontent.” Khan explains, “We have to think about whether this is true or not, whether the closing of libraries like the Education Library is remembered, whether it’s produced a decrease in quality for scholars of education.” Indeed, there was intense protest around the closure of the Education Library.

Part of the problem with the library administration’s approach to ‘improving’ libraries is the underlying assumption on its part that all libraries serve the learning process and contribute to the quality of scholarship in the same ways. While financial strains are a valid concern, a universal approach to all libraries that ignores differences amongst the libraries and dissent from faculty and students is not a viable solution.

While financial strains are a valid concern, a universal approach to all libraries that ignores differences amongst the libraries and dissent from faculty and students is not a viable solution.

In the case of the ISL, for example, its particularity and its importance comes in part from an impressive collection of texts and manuscripts written in Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Urdu, and many other languages besides English or Latin languages, texts that are used and cherished by students and professors alike. Contrary to the feasibility study’s November report, which found that library print sources are not being used, Calingo underscores not only a want but a necessity for print sources, at least in the ISL. “A lot of the places where primary source materials are being produced for our library don’t subscribe to this kind of digitization,” Calingo says.

Similarly, DeRamo notes that “[the ISL] has done a wonderful job of getting all these sources from the Middle East. Usually, these things don’t exist in translation, you can’t buy them [in Montreal].” DeRamo also emphasizes, “We have a lot of people here who work on manuscripts, that work on historical questions, and everybody here works on things that are in other languages. Those are three things that are completely not conducive to digitization, to high-volume storage.”

The digitization movement is more concentrated in Western European and North American countries. The Eurocentric assumption that it is in all libraries’ best interest to digitize ignores the needs of departments at McGill that need resources from places other than Europe and North America.

DeRamo points out that “[Masters students] have come from all over the world to work at this institution, to do research here, because we really think it’s a wonderful collection […] almost one of a kind in the Western hemisphere.” DeRamo continues, “Sometimes we want to feel like the university as a whole recognizes the treasure that is here, in all senses of the word. Architecturally, it’s a treasure on campus; historically, it’s […] the first institution of its kind on the continent, the first Islamic studies institute of any sort, it has a lot of heritage. […] We want to make sure that the university recognizes that.”

The library administration’s feasibility study suggests that “with the relocation of the print collection to appropriate storage, McGill University can re-imagine how spaces are used.” However, the current physical spaces of libraries hold just as much value as the materials that these spaces contain – one cannot discount the experience as a student of just getting to be in a library and working with physical texts. According to Khan, because of the library’s rich history, “students think that it’s equally important for them to interact with physical materials and with the physical space of the ISL given that, again, it’s perhaps the core of the Institute’s history.”

As students, we can continue to get our voices heard by making it known that we do not forget or accept the closure of our campus libraries, nor will we accept any cuts or changes that do not serve our collective needs. We can certainly try to use the tools the library is giving us to communicate by volunteering for their feasibility studies and giving our feedback about libraries.

McGill is has a diverse student body with diverse academic needs. While from a bureaucratic standpoint it may be easier to lump all libraries and their patrons into one category, in the long run, this can only hurt the academic accomplishment of students, and thus that of the university.


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.