By Jay Pinho
This past December, with final exams looming, many SIPA students descended into Lehman Library only to stumble upon the only thing even more frightening than the prospect of failing a class: hordes of undergraduates. Dozens of them, apparently finding refuge from an overcrowded Butler Library, streamed into Lehman instead. Laura Ramirez, a SIPA student who attempted to study at the library last December, distinctly recalled finding it “full to capacity” due, in large part, to undergraduates who conversed loudly, consumed entire meals in the library, and – perhaps most uncharacteristically for Lehman – arrived in their pajamas to cram for exams.
The dearth of available space around finals week is a well-known issue both to students and the administration. A 2010 Strategic Plan report by Columbia University Libraries & Information Services concluded that “space at Columbia continues to be at a premium.” And this month, Aly Jiwani, the University Senator for SIPA, reported that the director and associate librarian at Lehman both promised to “evaluate opening and closing usage to see if there are too many people waiting for the library to open or if there are too many people being kicked out. This demand is what drives the determination of library hours.”
A Morningside Post investigation of other Columbia libraries as well as those at peer universities, however, revealed that access policies follow a fairly analogous set of rules to that of Lehman Library.
In fact, librarians and administrators at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs all confirmed that their associated libraries remain open to all students of their respective universities throughout the academic year.
The Lehman Library’s open access to all Columbia University students is also on par with nearly all other libraries on campus. As Jiwani noted, “There are 22 libraries at Columbia University…all open to students with a CU ID (with the exception of the Law library during finals).” The Business School’s Thomas J. Watson Library is similarly freely available to all Columbia students, except for its top floor during midterms and finals.
Jane Winland, the director of Columbia’s Science and Engineering Libraries, seemed to capture the administration’s general consensus, acknowledging: “The libraries do get very crowded during these exam periods but [we] have never, ever considered limiting access by School.” Rachel Boehr, the SIPASA president, felt likewise: “Part of being part of a shared scholarly community is sharing academic resources and all of us stand to benefit from this.”
At the Law School, the Arthur W. Diamond Library permanently restricts access to its Reserve Reading room to Law students and “others who need to use specific materials housed within that room,” according to the library’s associate director, Jody Armstrong. Additionally, beginning approximately four weeks prior to the start of finals period through the end of the semester, access to the rest of the law library is restricted to Law students only.
The Law School’s restrictive policy echoes its counterpart at Harvard Law School, whose library limits access during exam periods. Cornell Law School’s web site reveals a more permissive policy, yet one that nevertheless limits access: “During final exam periods, access to the Law Library by non-law school individuals is available until 5:00 pm each day.”
Indeed, Columbia, Harvard, and Cornell are not alone in exempting their law schools from the general rule of open access at libraries during exam periods. As Jody Armstrong explained, “Adequate Law Library seating space is an articulated factor in the accreditation standards for law schools established by the American Bar Association…It is the result of our experience with patterns of law student use through the semester.”
As for Lehman Library, its open-door policy is partially attributable to the extensiveness of its collection. Jean Pierre Peguy, the supervisor for technical services and stack maintenance at Lehman, emphasized the multidisciplinary nature of the works contained in the library. The broad need to access the Lehman collection necessitates unrestricted access during exam periods, even for students and faculty from other Columbia schools who “are using it for their research as well as the facility to study.”
Vivian Coyne, a current SIPA student who also used Lehman Library as a Columbia undergraduate, concurs: “[My final] was based entirely on those books [from Lehman] and I needed access to Lehman library, where the books were on reserve, to pass the class.” Francie Mrkich, the director of Access Services for Columbia libraries, noted that space-related complaints generally only occur “during finals, when everybody’s stressed out to begin with.” Nevertheless, in recognition of last semester’s frustrations, Boehr promised to “work with university administration and other schools to improve study conditions for students.”
In effect, despite mounting frustrations amid high-pressure exam periods, SIPA students face roughly the same competition in finding library space as those at other graduate schools of international affairs. This may be of little consolation when a packed study room delays a SIPA student from preparing for a test. But it is well in line with the experiences of counterparts at Columbia and elsewhere.
This article appeared in the Feb. 19, 2013 print edition of The Morningside Post.