The Hesburgh Library

To: Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., President
Dr. Thomas G. Burish, Provost

Date: June 25, 2009

We, the undersigned faculty members of the College of Arts and Letters, petition for immediate, substantial action to raise the Hesburgh Library to the level of a library at a research university. Notre Dame would never tolerate a situation in which laboratories of engineers and physicists were so badly equipped that they had to go off-campus to pursue day-to-day research. Yet many of Notre Dame’s humanists and social scientists face exactly this state of affairs.

For humanists and many social scientists, a research library is the equivalent of a scientist’s laboratory. The library is the essential infrastructure for research, graduate and undergraduate education. Hesburgh Library has never come close to adequacy in many areas of humanistic and social science research, and it is getting comparatively worse. There is no perfect measure of the usefulness of a library to a scholar, but the total number of volumes is a good indicator. Between 2000 and 2005, according to the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), Notre Dame’s ranking in total volumes held steady at 59th (with a slight uptick in 2003 and 2004). In 2006 it fell to 60th. In 2007 it dropped to 62nd. Why? Notre Dame’s rank in the total number of volumes added each year was 32nd in 2000, 29th in 2001, 37th in 2002, and in the most recent statistics has sunk to 50th. In the ARL’s new “library investment index” Notre Dame’s position is actually negative (see ARL Table 21).

Compare other institutions that aspire to improve their standing in research – and they are actually doing something about it. Fifteen years ago, Penn State’s library was roughly comparable to Hesburgh Library in size. It now ranks 25th nationally in contrast to Hesburgh’s 62nd. The reason why Penn State is getting better and Notre Dame worse is simple. Hesburgh Library is currently adding slightly fewer than 80,000 volumes a year to its collection. Penn State is currently adding about 185,000 volumes per year to its holdings: well over twice Notre Dame’s effort. We have been similarly leap-frogged by other universities that we tend to consider our inferiors. A decade ago, the libraries of Oklahoma, Texas A&M and of North Carolina State University were about the same size as Notre Dame’s library; Brigham Young’s was smaller. Today, Oklahoma’s library is over 50% larger than Notre Dame’s; those of Texas A&M and North Carolina State are 15% larger than Notre Dame’s, and that of BYU is almost 20% larger. Currently, Oklahoma adds over 130,000 volumes a year, BYU almost 185,000, Texas A&M 165,000, and North Carolina State adds some 173,000 volumes a year.

Although the digital revolution has transformed the storage and retrieval of knowledge in many areas, scholars in many disciplines will continue also to depend on printed materials: digital resources complement, they do not replace printed ones. Besides, digital resources can be costly too. In three fortunate disciplines, theology, philosophy and Irish Studies, Hesburgh Library’s holdings seem adequate in some, perhaps most subfields. Also, the collection in Medieval Studies has kept pace with ongoing research. In other core disciplines of humanistic and social science scholarship, the collections range from very spotty to appallingly thin, a situation that also undermines newer, cross-disciplinary areas such as American Studies, Gender Studies and Africana Studies. The weakness is especially severe in foreign-language materials critical to support ND's aspiration to internationalize research and undergraduate education. Fields of study that Notre Dame is currently developing - Islam, Africa, South Asia and East Asia - are hardly covered at all. Notre Dame has a library fitted for a pretty good liberal-arts college, but generally inadequate for a research university. There is no great research university without a great research library.

What needs to be done?

First, Notre Dame must go beyond the loose aspirational rhetoric of the past twenty years and commit itself actually to building a serious research library. This can only happen if Notre Dame both increases the library’s annual budget permanently and makes a one-time major financial commitment, equivalent to building and equipping the Jordan Hall of Science (the cost was about $77,000,000). We need, as an immediate first priority, a much larger staff of bibliographers including ones who read the European languages including Russian along with Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and also Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Chinese, Japanese and Central Asian, African and indigenous American languages. Simultaneously, the Library should commit itself to a strategy of entrepreneurial retrospective collection building that will enable it to move effectively and quickly as soon as funding becomes available. It ought then to add, not as it does currently 80,000 volumes (with an acquisitions budget of c.$10,000,000) a year, but between two and three hundred thousand volumes annually for a decade or so (with an annual acquisitions budget of c.$35,000,000), before settling down to a rate of perhaps 150,000 volumes (annual acquisitions budget c. $20,000,000, i.e. about double the current figure). In due course, we need a high-density building adjacent to the library or on the edge of campus to hold books less often used. We cannot do better than engaging the faculty and students of our own acclaimed school of architecture to prepare plans for such a structure and for the library as a whole. Only major reform and investment on this scale can build a research library. 

Without it, Notre Dame can resign itself to staying in the second rank of universities. Why is Notre Dame willing to make commitments on this scale in the natural sciences but not in the humanities and social sciences, disciplines that have long formed and continue to form the intellectual core of its Catholic identity? Taken together, these disciplines are Notre Dame’s best hope for being academically distinguished and also distinctively Catholic.

Second, Notre Dame needs library leadership dedicated to such a program of development. During the last ten years, our library has entered the world of digital resources. But now, the Director of the Library along with all who work there should receive the institutional charge to build the Hesburgh Library into a serious research library on a par with libraries at universities like Texas, Indiana, Duke, and Arizona – not even to mention the nation’s foremost research libraries. We urgently request you to instruct the Director of the Library to focus aspirations and energies on growing a research library that will enable Notre Dame to become the major research university it hopes someday to be.

Respectfully submitted,