Report: Gelman in 'very bad shape'

by Mary Ellen McIntire

Consultants gave Gelman Library a stinging critique this week, calling it a subpar research library with sparse resources and staff as part of a months-long University review.

Administrators declined to release details of the report, conducted by top librarians from University of Virginia and Columbia University. But David McAleavey, an English professor and chair of the Faculty Senate libraries committee, said their findings were harsh.

“Apparently to objective outside observers, Gelman is in really, very bad shape and is in need of attention for funds for collections, as well as for staff, and so on,” McAleavey said at a Faculty Senate committee meeting this month.

He later said in an email that he was speaking with “hyperbole” at the senate meeting.

Professors and administrators have in the past lamented the decision to hold flat the library’s about $4 million budget for books, staff and databases for the past decade, despite efforts to raise GW’s research prominence.

The consultants’ findings, based on two days of discussions with staff, faculty and students in February, will help shape a final report by the 20-member library strategic review committee, assembled by Provost Steven Lerman last year.

Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Stephen Ehrmann, who is heading the review committee, downplayed the consultants’ report.

“This was, I think, a much smaller and more informal study than you imagine,” Ehrmann said.

Ehrmann and McAleavey declined to sit for an interview.

Lerman said the University also considers GW’s proximity to the Library of Congress and other D.C. libraries when determining how to invest in Gelman collections.

“I do think we have to ask ourselves what specifically resources do we need to create for our students and faculty that where possible leverage other resources?” Lerman said.

Administrators will survey professors and graduate students starting this week to gauge how to best use teaching and research resources. The strategic review committee, made up of faculty, librarians, administrators and students, will send a report to the provost’s office later this year.

McAleavey said he expects the report to include a timetable and list of priorities for the aging library, potentially including some cost estimates.

"It would then ultimately be up to the administration to follow through," he said.

The knock also comes as GW pours $16 million into a facelift for the library's lower two floors. Renovations will relocate the library’s entrance to Kogan Plaza with an elaborate staircase, rather than the lower-level H Street entrance that University President Steven Knapp has called “cave-like.”

Construction will end in 2014 and also carve out more study space, an investment administrators made two years ago after intense advocacy from student groups.

The University is also close to finding its next librarian after longserving head Jack Siggins retired this summer. The final four candidates came to campus last month.

Whether or not the University increases Gelman funding, the next librarian will need to work around financial constraints, Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz said. The University’s endowment per student lags behind most of its competitor schools like New York University and Tulane University.

“I’m not saying there aren’t needs in Gelman,” Katz said. “But one of the things I always say is we are competing against institutions that have far more resources than we have on a per student basis.”

The University also has libraries in the medical and law schools and on the Virginia and Mount Vernon campuses. Some have earned prestige as some of the top research libraries over the past two decades.

The Association of Research Libraries placed GW among schools with top research libraries in 1998 for exceeding a $40 million endowment. Julia Blixrud, assistant executive director of scholarly communication, said that once a library has been accepted into the ARL, it is not re-evaluated.

The GW library system ranked No. 47 in the country, spending $27.5 million on staff salaries, books and databases two years ago, the latest data available.

It is likely that Gelman will make a transition to becoming mostly digital, said Simon Berkovich, a professor on the Faculty Senate libraries committee. Some faculty on the committee questioned how much Gelman itself is used at the Faculty Senate meeting because so many resources are already available digitally.

Librarians said that the turnstile trackers at Gelman's entrance show that about 8,000 to 9,000 people enter the building each day.

Interim librarian Andrea Stewart declined a meeting to discuss both the report and Gelman’s current funding situation.

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