Li: Our libraries need help

Grant Li, Columnist

During Wildcat Welcome 2019, Northwestern University Libraries had a little table outside Deering Library to distribute pins depicting Deering as Hogwarts. I loved those pins and was so excited to be able to use the library every day. Someone in my peer adviser group said their goal was to work in the library, and I shared similar sentiments.

Now, we both work in Deering, but my experience has been a mild reality check. A historical building will always have its problems, but Deering is in a pitiful state. In particular, the widely advertised Eloise W. Martin Reading Room has ripped carpet and broken chairs. The other day, I was handing out extension cables because some of the ones placed on the floor to provide students with power outlets weren’t working. Worst of all, since winter, the roof has been leaking, threatening books and forcing us to seal off a portion of the library usually occupied by students reclining in sofa chairs. It doesn’t take that hard of a look to notice our libraries really need some help.

Recently, the University announced it hired Xuemao Wang as the next dean of libraries and Charles Deering McCormick University Librarian. He was previously in charge of the University of Cincinnati’s libraries. I hope the change in leadership will signal a better future for our libraries.

Still, I harbor doubts as to how much Wang will actually be able to do, as most of the power to determine budgets and distribute resources seems to reside with administration. Whether Wang will be able to convince NU to allocate more resources to our libraries remains to be seen, but if the priorities of administration thus far are any indication, I’m not optimistic. 

The University seems capable of marshaling endless amounts of money toward new athletic facilities, while our libraries, Counseling and Psychological Services and even some residence halls fall by the wayside. That isn’t to say athletic facilities don’t deserve the funding they get, but it often seems like administration’s attention is taken by athletic facilities at the expense of things the rest of students really need. Ideally, the rest of campus would get at least equal attention.

When Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia, one of his innovations was to put the library at the center of the university. This was unique at the time because usually the chapel was at the center. The library at the heart of campus symbolized that the university was to be a place of learning. Of the many obviously questionable and detestable legacies of the founding of the UVA, this is one we can appreciate.

If anything, classrooms, libraries, CAPS and residence halls should never lack resources. Even if the University isn’t running a surplus, it doesn’t mean the administration can forgo providing proper mental health resources or student lodgings. 

There’s a whole host of buildings and projects right now that seem to be on hold for various financial reasons, like 1835 Hinman and the Norris University Center (where the administration hasn’t been able to find a naming donor). There are other buildings that need attention, too. Locy Hall is probably a building code violation, and if it isn’t, the building code needs to be changed. 

And of course, our libraries. We plaster them all over our brochures and advertisements and lead tours of potential students through Deering. When it comes to actually committing money to its upkeep, there’s obviously a lack of support. It simply makes no sense how, of all things, a library at an educational institution can fall into such disrepair and not even be on the list of renovations. 

We should revere every library like it is a chapel. Isn’t this a school? It’s not a hedge fund or sports franchise with a university as a front, right? Repairs and renovations for our libraries or funding for mental health shouldn’t be held hostage by the lack of a naming donor.

It’s too bad things like residence halls and CAPS aren’t exactly the glitzy buildings that billionaire donors are clamoring to attach their names to, but we’re not asking for much. It’s 2022, and we’re laying out faulty extension cords on the floor of the Art Library because there’s no way to get electricity to the tables otherwise. 

The University has a new president arriving soon. I don’t expect much to be different, as the type of people who manage to make it up to that level in the world of higher education are all of a similar cut of cloth or have the same vested interests. But I wouldn’t mind being pleasantly surprised. 

Grant Li is a Weinberg junior. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.