Dean Douglas Dempster's statement on the Fine Arts Library

October 18, 2017

To the Faculty, Students, and Staff of the College of Fine Arts and the UT Libraries:

The Fine Arts Library collections are a treasure of the College of Fine Arts and the University of Texas Libraries.  Reports of the demise or closure of the Fine Arts Library are greatly exaggerated. It is true, however, that we continue to re-evaluate uses of the Fine Arts Library—as we have done for the last decade or longer. Until further study, no decision has been made about the disposition of the Fine Arts collection and library services in the Doty Fine Arts Building.

Accessibility to the Fine Arts collection for research and educational purposes is non-negotiable. That is not at risk. Furthermore, no one disagrees that having a great collection concentrated and close at hand is a better thing than having it dispersed and remotely located. Browsing through stacks can be a place of research discovery, as can digital access to millions of remote items.

It’s a fair question, however, how nearby and how concentrated a collection needs to be to meet the college’s research and educational mission. It’s a question we have little choice but to answer.

By 2015, overall enrollment of majors in the College of Fine Arts had fallen steadily over a 20-year period by more than 20%--not a survivable trend for a public arts college. For the first time in decades, with the advent of new degree programs, enrollments in the College of Fine Arts are growing again rather than shrinking. We need to find or make room for these new students, their faculty and courses.

The best of all possible remedies for our space needs would be a large, new facility. That’s not going to happen. The college went through a comprehensive facilities planning exercise over the last two years. One result of that plan was the clear message from university leadership that the College of Fine Arts needs to repurpose and renovate existing spaces to achieve its mission and should not expect in the foreseeable future a new facility.

The changing nature of libraries, their collections, and services—and the huge effect of technology—is also obviously influential here. It’s hard to believe many years later, but the loss of card catalogs was decried when they were replaced by online, searchable databases. Several years ago, a half-million art slides occupying a large footprint in the Doty Building were migrated into storage and replaced by digital images retrievable online from any networked office or classroom, often with gigantic advantages in resolution and image manipulation. That repurposed space greatly improved offices and teaching facilities for the Art History program.

The Fine Arts collection, which grows by a few thousand acquisitions each year, long ago vastly exceeded the capacity in the Fine Arts Library. The majority of that collection is now in off-site storage, accessible through automated retrieval and distribution systems provided by the UT Libraries. This obviously has not been fatal to our research eminence or educational effectiveness.

Decades of circulation and patron data collected by the libraries proved the precipitous decline of faculty and student visits to the Fine Arts Library. Even more surprising, in the past five years alone, circulation out of the collection housed in the Fine Arts Library has dropped from 216,000 items a year to fewer than 100,000. Several years ago, 75,000 CDs and DVDs were moved from the Flawn Academic Center to the Fine Arts Library; circulation from that collection has already fallen so dramatically in just the past few years that those CDs and DVDs have been moved into storage.

In light of these circulation and usage trends, the college has worked hard with the leadership of UT Libraries to repurpose the way the Fine Arts Library space is used and occupied. What you see today on the main, third-floor reading room is a realization of that rejuvenation: the reference collection has been moved to the floors above; many more networked terminals are provided; many more comfortable and varied work spaces, including group study spaces are provided; the furnishings and layout allow for flexible use of the space for lectures, performances and exhibitions; and most recently, the Foundry, the university’s first all-campus maker space has been accommodated on the third floor.

Libraries everywhere are changing in similar ways. The third-floor reading room now meets the needs of hundreds of students, faculty and staff every day rather than the handful that might have visited ten years ago.

Last spring, the collections concentrated on the fourth floor of the Fine Arts Library were consolidated onto the fifth floor with many rarely circulating items moved to other locations. Over the summer, the fourth floor was renovated to create three new seminar rooms, three large classrooms—all available to all COFA faculty and courses—including a multi-media classroom/lab and new offices for the new School of Design and Creative Technologies.  On any given weekday, hundreds of students and teachers are now working in the spaces on the fourth floor.

The portion of the Fine Arts collection now shelved on the fifth floor of the library (approximately 200,000 items) is extremely convenient to faculty members and students who work, study, or live near the Doty Fine Arts Building. A great thing, no doubt.

Many make good use of this availability every day. But few linger after retrieving material or browsing. In the 18,000 square feet on the fifth floor, one is hard pressed at any random hour to find more than a handful of students studying or browsing the collection, some just taking advantage of the solitude of the space. Dozens of study carrels sit empty every day serving primarily as bookshelves for reserved material. Locked special-collection files, old shelving and furniture clutter the space, and more than 10% of the space is dedicated to library offices and processing facilities.

The question is not whether a great research and teaching collection close to hand is a good and treasured thing, but whether we can be making better use of the space in the Doty Building in light of these conspicuous trends and alternatives to managing the collection.

Before the end of this semester, I will form two working groups to answer different parts of this question. The first, under the leadership of the UT Libraries, will explore and evaluate the alternatives to having the Fine Arts collection concentrated on the fifth floor of the Doty Fine Arts Building—in part or whole—and the drawbacks and advantages of those alternatives.

The second will consider a) what facilities our new programs need and b) what spaces in the College of Fine Arts, throughout all our buildings and in every department and school, could accommodate these expanding programs. All current facilities in the College of Fine Arts will be considered, including the Doty Fine Arts Building.

I go into this process presuming that a Fine Arts Library staff and services will have an ongoing, vital presence in some form or fashion in the Doty Fine Arts Building. Just how large a footprint this will require five or ten years from now remains to be answered. If we can find ways to accommodate our growing programs in other facilities in the college while preserving the library collection in the Doty Fine Arts Building, that will be a very happy result.

Be assured, there will be faculty and student representation on these working groups.

Unfortunately, this discussion has already become confused by a good deal of misinformation. Some students believe that moving items off the fourth-floor mezzanine left no part of the Fine Arts collection in the Doty Building. Some have attributed to me the grotesque view that our “traditional humanistic fields have no place in the dean’s vision of the future of the college.” Rallies to pad the numbers of circulating items or library visits to the Fine Arts Library only highlight already low counts that have been tracked for decades.

To inform this process better, I’ve asked the UT Libraries to develop a running “FAL FAQ” that might clarify relevant facts and dispel misconceptions. This memo, the FAL FAQ, and other relevant reports of the working groups will be available at this address.

I understand what a difficult process this will be for many of us. I trust we’ll arrive at workable accommodations that honor our traditional programs and practices while making room for the future.

Dean Doug Dempster signature

Douglas Dempster

Dean, College of Fine Arts