After announcing budget cuts of $1.8 million to the McGill Library in April, the McGill Library held a series of consultation sessions on the upcoming merger of the Life Sciences Library and the Schulich Library of Science and Engineering, a controversial move prompted by the cuts.
Although there was initial concern over the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, Trenholme Dean of Libraries Colleen Cook confirmed at the session on May 16, “the Osler Library is going to stay open no matter what” at its current location.
The decision to close the Life Sciences Library and merge its collections and staff into the Schulich Library was met with swift outrage upon its announcement in April.
The consultation process is being supervised by Dr. Richard Cruess, a Core Faculty Member of the Centre for Medical Education, and Daniel Boyer, Head Librarian of the Nahum Gelber Law Library. The two will draft recommendations from the input at the sessions, and prepare a report for Cook and David Eidelman, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, in early June.
A consultation session for librarians and support staff was held in mid-May, while a consultation session for students was held on May 16, and one for staff and faculty on May 22. The Daily attended the sessions held for students, and for staff and faculty.
According to Cook, the consultation process is being held in the summer because the budget cuts went into effect on May 1, and any major changes to the libraries must be made by September 1. However, only around 25 people attended each session, raising questions about the inconvenience for a large number of students, staff, and faculty.
Similar trend in research libraries worldwide
At both of the consultation sessions, Cook assured attendees that merging libraries to make room for student study space was a major trend in research libraries of similar size around the world. “What’s happening here is not unusual, it’s not out of the mainstream, it’s very typical.”
According to Cook’s statistics, out of the different branches of the McGill Library, the Education Library and the Life Sciences Library had the lowest ratio of visits per person per year – “persons” including students, staff, and faculty from the departments that each library serves.
The Education Library had 47 visits per person, while the Life Sciences Library had only nine visits per person. In contrast, the McLennan Library had 293 visits per person per year, while Schulich had 63 visits per person per year.
Cook also pointed to the consistent downward trend in the loaning of physical materials, and an alarming upward trend of costs for serials at McGill. Since 1986, the cost of serials – such as databases and journals – has risen by 402 per cent. Cook admitted that the library will be forced to take a cut to its collections budget as well.
The budget cuts affect all the libraries from a centralized point since, as Cook stressed in both sessions, the Library has a central budget. “It is important to understand that the Life Sciences Library does not have a separate budget … nor does any other single library at McGill.”
However, Cruess disagreed with Cook at the consultation process on May 16. “I would have to disagree with [Cook]. She’s got a budget, and Susan Murray at the Life Sciences Library has a budget. … So [Cook] can talk about a single system all she wants, but nevertheless there are little mini systems within the big system.”
Support staff the main targets of cuts
A large portion of the cost-saving will come from a voluntary retirement package offered to support staff in the library. Of the 130 support staff that service all of the branches of the McGill Library, around 40 are eligible for the package. Cook estimated that around 25 to 35 of these staff members would take the retirement package, leaving these positions vacant without the money to hire new people.
It is this shortage of people that Cook pinpointed as the main reason behind the mergers. Support staff are distinguished from librarians on the basis of their duties and their qualifications. Librarians have a Master’s degree, and answer targeted and subject-specific questions, while support staff perform duties such as shelving books and staffing support desks.
“Keeping the doors [of a library] open requires support staff that we aren’t going to have,” Cook said at the session on May 16.
However, according to Susan Murray, head librarian at the Life Sciences Library, none of the four support staff that currently work at the Life Sciences Library are eligible for this retirement package. Instead, with the closing of Life Sciences, they will be shuffled to other libraries, filling in any support staff vacancies after the deadline for taking the package passes on June 3.
A focus on student study space
If the Life Sciences Library is moved to the Schulich Library, the current space in McIntyre Medical building will be transformed into student study space. Students at the consultation session expressed concerns that the space would be unregulated and noisy, but Cook refused to speculate on the form the space would take, pointing out that the study space would become a prerogative of the Faculty of Medicine and Eidelman.
Cook explained that the Faculty of Management used to have a library, but underwent a similar process, and that space is now reserved for student study. She acknowledged that the transition for reserve materials was the hardest part, and that this would pose a problem for the Life Sciences Library as well.
Attendees at both sessions highlighted the importance of the link between physical materials and space. “I think the concern of a lot of people … is that you’re going to lose the heart and soul of what is the medical library,” said an attendee at the session on May 22. “And I think that’s an intangible, it has perhaps less calculable monetary value but it is invaluable.”
Alternatives offered at consultation
Students at the May 16 consultation session offered several solutions apart from closing the Life Sciences Library. This input will be put into the report for Dean Eidelman and Cook to consider in June.
Students suggested donating older or surplus editions of textbooks to a departmental association such as the Medical Students’ Society (MSS), so that the students could set up a volunteer lending system.
In this case, the departmental association would be tasked with managing the books independently, and staff from the Library would no longer have to be used, allowing the materials to potentially stay in the McIntyre Medical Building.
Outgoing SSMU VP University Affairs Haley Dinel proposed merging the Education Library – also slated for closure – and the Life Sciences Library, and keeping a small selection of core books.
Cook was receptive to the idea of a volunteer lending system, citing examples of similar projects, but did not seem to think that merging the Education Library and Life Sciences Library was feasible.
Several attendees at both sessions proposed having either student volunteers or current librarians take over the duties of support staff. Cook immediately rejected the idea – as support staff are part of MUNACA, either of these proposals would violate the collective bargaining agreement.
Attendees at the May 16 session also proposed keeping a small selection of core, required texts in the McIntyre Medical Building. Cook also labelled this idea unfeasible due to the expected shortage in support staff.
“The size of the collection isn’t as relevant as the space you have to keep open, and the numbers of shifts that you need to do that,” said Cook at the session on May 16. “As I said, we could potentially lose almost half of our support staff across the entire library system. And because we are one system, we have to think of how to keep the spaces open … with the number of staff that we have left that is going to do the most good for the most number of people.”
All of the solutions revolved primarily around a central complaint from students: the inconvenience of the location of the Schulich Library. “[There is] a basic principle in management … to make sure a resource is not used, [you should] make it difficult to use,” one attendee commented at the session on May 22 on the difficulty with inconvenience.
Cook offered a proposed solution to such inconvenience: the use of the delivery system between libraries. At any library at McGill, physical materials can be requested and shipped to a different branch – although it can take up to several days. For faculty, the physical materials can be delivered to their campus offices – a service that began in March of this year.
However, these services are in peril with cuts to support staff, who do the bulk of the work associated with the delivery system. According to Murray, at a meeting on May 8, the library managers voted to potentially eliminate these delivery services as a consequence of the lack of support staff.
The attendees at the consultation sessions were not happy with the solutions proposed by the Library. “I am convinced that how we make these changes requires boldness and creativity, not just the mentality of ‘we need to cut budgets, so we must cut staff and facilities,’” David Benrimoh, MSS SSMU representative, wrote to The Daily. “Instead we should be thinking, ‘with the resources we will have, how can we creatively arrange things so that we can benefit the most people, and fill the most needs?’”
Consultation sessions criticized as insincere and abrupt
The attendees at both consultation sessions roundly criticized the last-minute process as lacking sincerity and transparency. There was discontent over the lack of consultation with a wide variety of groups – including professors, students, and library staff – prior to the decision to close the Life Sciences Library.
In an email to The Daily, Benrimoh expressed dissatisfaction with the session on May 16. “I am upset that this ‘consultation’ was … really the presentation of a proposal for possible tweaking. We should have been consulted, in depth, from the beginning of the process.”
Benrimoh acknowledged that the swift nature of the budget cuts left the Library in a particular bind, but still disagreed with Cook’s methods. “[Some answers] seemed to be unconvincing justifications that were pasted in place in order to deal with the contracted timeframe that all this is taking place in.”
An attendee at the session on May 22 echoed this point, and said to Cook, “I understand that you have to make difficult decisions here, [but] I was hoping that this would be a real consultation.”
James Coulton, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and member of the Life Sciences Library Advisory Committee, criticized Cook for the unreasonable degree of finality in the process. He questioned whether the recommendations would be considered, alleging that Cook ended a meeting of the Advisory Committee by saying, “My library, my decision.”
However, despite complaints presented at both sessions, Cook and those heading the consultation process made it clear that the recommendations will be used to better deliver the services after the closure of the Life Sciences Library.
“You shouldn’t think that everything here … is written in stone,” Cruess said, later adding, “[But] we can’t stand still. The world is changing, how information is used is changing.”