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Big changes are coming to two STEM-field libraries at Penn.

Part of the Math-Physics-Astronomy Library in David Rittenhouse Laboratory will be converted to an active learning classroom and the Engineering Library in the Towne Building will close at the end of the semester.

Mathematics professor David Harbater first alerted graduate students of the plans for the DRL library in a Feb. 21 email. “The university is thinking of creating a new space for active learning that would occupy 2/3 of what is now the Math-Physics Library on the third floor of DRL,” he said in the email. “The books and journals now in this space would be removed, to make room for this.”

More active learning space for science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses at Penn has been a topic of discussion among administrators for more than a year, according to Physics and Astronomy Department Chair Larry Gladney. One math course is currently being held in the ARCH Building’s multi-purpose classroom, and a Physics 150 course was held in a “flipped” classroom this past summer. 

Increasing the space available for active learning courses would more than double the Math and Physics and Astronomy departments' capacities to expand active learning initiatives.

“I think that's pretty important for changing over the way we do teaching,” Gladney said of the intended renovation. “We need classrooms if we're going to do more.”

In a meeting on March 5, many graduate students who use the Math-Physics-Astronomy Library expressed their disagreement with the changes. Vice Provost and Director of Libraries H. Carton Rogers III spoke at the meeting, which was attended by faculty and students, as well as Lauren Gala, the head of the Math-Physics-Astronomy Library.

Students expressed dismay at the repurposing of part of the space. Several students said that no student input had been sought in the decision. A petition to halt changes to the library is being circulated as well, according to Neel Patel, a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics. The petition had more than 300 signatures at the time of publication.

“Most of the faculty and basically all of the graduate students felt that this was a bad idea,” said Harbater, who attended the meeting. “The most obvious one would be that the books would disappear.”

The books currently in the Math, Physics and Astronomy Library will be stored off-site, where the books currently stored in the Towne Building’s library will also be moved.

Faculty and staff in the Engineering School were notified of the intended closing of the Engineering Library in an email from Engineering Dean Eduardo Glandt on March 4. Chair of the Mathematics Department Andre Scedrov shared the information with mathematics faculty and graduate students on Thursday.

According to Glandt’s email, “space has become [the Engineering School’s] most critical resource” because of all-time high student enrollment and faculty size. He listed space for research, studying, newly hired faculty and an active learning classroom as possibilities for the current library location, which will be redesigned over the summer.

“Those of us who grew up with a veneration for the printed word and who still collect and cherish books will be pained by this transition,” Glandt said in his email’s conclusion. “We all understand, however, that we are going through an irreversible sea change. The book or journal printed on cellulose is becoming a collector's item, a wonderful artifact to be saved and preserved. Just not in the Towne Building.”

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