UC Berkeley will close three campus libraries in the next two years, the culmination of a longstanding plan to reduce services and cut library costs that began over a decade ago.
The changes will save the university over $1 million annually, but students and faculty protesting the closures say the cost to research and learning is higher.
As part of the long-term space plan that outlines these changes, the anthropology and physics-astronomy libraries are set to close by August 2024, and the mathematics statistics library by August 2025. There will also reduced services at other libraries.
“The library is the heart and circulatory system of our research and instructional mission,” Tim Volmer, a librarian, said during a rally outside California Hall last week, reading from a 2013 report on the future of the library.
When UC Berkeley proposed cuts to the libraries, faculty rallied, calling on the university to reinvest in its libraries. In 2013, a faculty commission published a report asking to restore funding. In response, UC Berkeley agreed to raise funds, but since then, the library budget has shrunk, and cuts continue.
Today, the university library makes up 1.8% — $42 million — of the university’s $3.2 billion budget, down from 3.5% in 2006. Per student, the share of library funds provided by the the university have decreased by 40% in seven years, when taking into account inflation, according to University Librarian Jeff MacKie-Mason. (Private donations increased during that time, buoying the budget.)
“California Hall continues to starve the library of the resources that it needs to support the massive research teaching and learning on this campus,” Volmer said at the rally.
University spokesperson Janet Gilmore said plans for the libraries — consolidating specialty collections within “hub libraries” — effectively cut costs in the face of rising financial pressures, including inflation, repairs for aging campus infrastructure and the wage increase won by graduate students during the recent strike.
Also, how students and researchers use libraries is changing. Research is becoming increasingly digital and interdisciplinary, so libraries are moving in that direction, too, according to the library space plan. After the pandemic, the number of monthly visits to most campus libraries declined, in some cases dramatically.
Critics suggest cutting other budgets
Critics say it’s not a problem of funding, but a matter of priorities. They would like to see the university invest less money in athletics, which received $31 million of its $92 million budget from the central campus last year.
Two of the libraries slated for closure have already been gutted. The shelves of the physics-astronomy library are empty, and the anthropology library is staffed by a student worker during reduced hours. If students want to check out books in this department, they have to make a collections request at another library, where materials have been moved.
In 10 years, the university library has slipped in its rankings compared to peer institutions on every metric, from the number of volumes it holds to how much the library spends each year, according to an annual ranking by the Association of Research Libraries. However, UC Berkeley remains one of the top libraries in the country by many counts.
Last week, students held a two-night sit-in to protest the closure of the George and Mary Foster anthropology library, the second sit-in at the library in just over a year. In February, students organized a similar demonstration to keep the library open, the Daily Cal reported.
“This is the material heart of what this department is and who we are,” said Daniel Fisher, associate anthropology professor, during a town hall at the library the day of the sit-in.
The anthropology department started a petition, now at 590 signatures, to keep the library open. Testimonials posted to the department’s website praise it for providing a dedicated space for anthropological research and its intimate environment. “There aren’t any other spaces like it on campus,” an alumnus wrote.
Research materials in specialty libraries are still available, though accessing the collections or browsing the stacks may be less convenient. But some worry that the collections will be on the chopping block after the library closures.
“When the library is forced to reduce or cancel scholarly journals and other research resources, it means that academic workers, faculty and students like you will have poor access to the materials that you need to do the research that powers this university,” Volmer said at the rally.
UC Berkeley has yet to determine how it will use the libraries once they are shuttered. Chancellor Carol Christ and an advisory committee will make that decision.
Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized recent changes to the library budget. Per student library funds provided by the university fell by 40% when adjusted for inflation, not per student library funds overall.