UW-Madison officials unveiled a plan Thursday to create six major library “hubs,” while eliminating nearly two dozen smaller libraries and reducing collection space by nearly two-thirds, in what they say is an effort to adapt to changing ways students and faculty members use libraries.

Library officials and consultants hired to help assemble the plan say transforming the study spaces will turn them into “21st-Century libraries.” But some faculty and staff members expressed concern that the plan could have consequences for researchers in some areas or limit access to scholarly materials.

The 20- to 25-year plan comes after a yearlong study found that students and faculty members use libraries differently than they used to because research material is increasingly available digitally.

“It’s important to understand this may appear in some ways to be a radical vision ... but it’s not,” said Adam Griff, director of Brightspot Strategy, one of the consultants that helped develop the plan. “It’s catching up.”

Instead of browsing voluminous stacks of reference material and studying quietly alone, students and researchers now prefer to access materials digitally and to work in groups across disciplines, library officials say.

The shift will allow library staff to focus less on space management and more on assisting students and researchers.

Department libraries such as the Physics Library or Geography Library would be replaced with six high-tech, adaptable libraries that would allow students to collaborate in larger groups.

Under the plan, Memorial Library would be renovated, with more of it open to the public. A new library would be established on the south side of campus at an undetermined location.

Other libraries in the “hub” system would include College Library, Steenbock Library, the Law Library and Ebling Library.

Overall, 22 smaller libraries would be closed, and collection space would be cut by 62 percent. Those volumes would be moved to a UW library storage facility.

The overhaul would be paid for with donations and, hopefully, state money, said Natasha Veeser, a libraries spokeswoman.

She declined to disclose cost estimates for implementing the plan.

Staffing levels associated with the plan weren’t included in the analysis because it dealt with capital improvements, not operational details, Veeser said.

A final report on the recommendations should be released in early 2018, she said.

Following peer campuses

UW-Madison would follow peers such as Purdue University and the University of Illinois that have a similar library system in place.

“I think it’s very sensible and practical,” said Ed Van Gemert, vice provost for libraries and university librarian. “It’s our responsibility — it’s certainly mine — to research, examine and then to design library operations and the organization of the library system to meet these challenges.”

At one of two public hearings Thursday at UW-Madison’s Memorial Library, some graduate students, faculty and staff members said they worried about consequences that the planned changes, especially reducing accessible collection space, could have on research, teaching and learning.

Although researchers in areas such as hard sciences already mostly use digitized collections, several people at the meeting said the plan could negatively affect students and researchers, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, such as history.

“I’m very concerned to see the real severe reduction in collections on site,” said Gloria Whiting, a professor in the History Department. “My research depends on my ability to access those collections ... There is a scholarly value to browsing ... it’s just not the same to have it off site where you can’t browse.”

Others said eliminating highly specialized and department libraries under the plan could damage faculty and graduate student retention, or worried about being able to access off-site materials in a timely manner.

Van Gemert said he understands the concerns, which officials would try to address by working with faculty members, deans and department heads before any plans are finalized.

“This is a master plan,” he said. “We’re nowhere near a point where we’re talking about what these spaces will look like or what they would contain.”

Despite some of the concerns, Van Gemert said modernizing the libraries to better suit how students and faculty members use them today is vital to help ensure the viability of the university’s library system.

“It’s a changing environment,” he said. “What we’re trying to do here is to try to build a system ... for the next 25 years.”

“It think it’s very sensible and practical.” Ed Van Gemert, vice provost for libraries and university librarian “I’m very concerned to see the real severe reduction in collections on site.” Gloria Whiting, a professor in the History Department
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Chris Aadland is a reporting intern for the Wisconsin State Journal.