Opinion: SDSU’s Crumbling Library Is Emblematic of University’s Misplaced Priorities

Leaks at SDSU library
Shelves are wrapped in plastic and buckets are ready in SDSU’s leaking main library. Photos by Peter Herman

Why is San Diego State University‘s administration wasting money on branding while the main library is falling apart?

On March 23, the SDSU NewsCenter proudly announced that as part of “the updated brand strategy during San Diego State University’s 125th anniversary celebration on March 14, new secondary colors were introduced: charcoal, white and teal.”

The full story detailed how much time and effort went into thinking about the university’s color scheme,

“Following months of research and discussion during the university’s strategic planning process, along with an additional 10-month project involving students, faculty, staff and alumni, SDSU introduced an expanded color palette, providing guidelines for when the three secondary colors may be used,” according to the report.

Left out—the cost.

When I asked La Monica Everett-Haynes, SDSU’s associate vice president and chief communications officer, about the price tag, she responded that $150,000 was allocated to hire a “global creative agency” to lead the 10-month research, planning and development initiative and an additional $24,800 came from an existing marketing and communications budget.

Let’s round it up to $175,000. It’s probably even more. The Dec. 10 minutes for the President’s Budget Advisory Committee records that $300,000 had been approved for the “Brand Activation Plan.”

But at the same time the University throws money at outside consultants to update its tagline and choose colors along with instructions on when the new colors “may be used” (who knew there were rules for such things?), Love Library is falling apart.

After the story broke about the library’s refusing Bram and Sandra Dijkstra’s offer to donate The John Coltrane Memorial Black Music Archive (my understanding is that the parties have since agreed to mediation), two librarians explained in a letter to the University Senate that conditions in the library were too humid to protect the collection.

“For the past 10+ years we have consistently had [humidity] issues maintaining an adequate environment for paper-based materials,” the librarians reported. “LP collections require special storage and a controlled environment with humidity levels between 30-40% to prevent warping and disintegration, which is even lower than those of paper-based materials.”

In other words, the library cannot maintain a sufficiently dry environment to preserve the collection. Accepting this archive and storing it on campus would potentially destroy it. So the library had to, with regret, decline the gift.

Fixing the humidity issues requires “a dedicated HVAC system at a cost of over $1 million.” You would think that the Administration would jump on this problem and do what they can to keep its collections safe, but you would be wrong.

“Library and campus administration have deflected our repeated requests for better environmental control and more space, citing lack of funding and/or building constraints,” the librarians told the University Senate.

A dehumidifier in the library.

Instead of a permanent solution, the staff has resorted to stop-gap measures. “We currently have portable industrial strength dehumidifiers operating around the clock, emptying water into garbage cans that have to be emptied several times every day,” according to the letter.

The situation is even worse than the letter to the University Senate letter allows, as the ceiling in the Special Collections stacks has multiple leaks, requiring these valuable and rare items to be covered in plastic wrap.

Some stacks have plastic sheets but the ceiling seems fine. When I asked, I was told they anticipated leaks, so they covered the stacks as a preventive measure.

In addition to humidity and leaks inside, the library’s exterior is crumbling. A colleague tells me he has seen 1,000-year-old cathedrals in better shape.

Crumbling exterior of Love Library.

Bad as these problems may be, these are just the visible ones. Since 2010, the CSU Seismic Retrofit Priority Listings has designated Love Library as a Priority 1 building that warrants “urgent attention for seismic upgrade.” SDSU is right next to the Rose Canyon fault, which the California Earthquake Commission rates as “the biggest earthquake threat to San Diego,” capable of a 6.9-magnitude quake.

What might happen? Nobody knows for certain, but as Geology Professor Isabelle Sacramento-McJilton said in 2017, “we’re in California for god sakes; retrofit the damn building.” 

It’s now 2022, twelve years later, and nothing has been done. Are they waiting for the building to collapse, or a piece of the exterior to fall on someone? Perhaps that’s what the Healing Garden is for (cost: $250,000).

Obviously, the library’s problems predate Adela de la Torre. But she’s the president now. The budget reflects her priorities, and they clearly do not include the library. Instead, it’s always something else.

For example, paying Salesforce $123,250 “to expand the existing features for Salesforce and upgrade the level of services from ‘Corporate’ to ‘Enterprise’ Marketing Cloud.” Or spending $200,000 for SDSU’s 125th Anniversary celebration. The President’s Budget Advisory Committee approvals for the last four years, except for the very small additions to the acquisitions budget, never even mention the library.

This neglect is incomprehensible for two reasons.

First, the administration has repeatedly said that they want to add more doctoral programs so that SDSU can achieve the Carnegie Foundation’s highest ranking — R1 for “very high research activity” — which would make SDSU one of the very few Hispanic-serving R1 universities in the country. A laudable ambition, but you can’t be a research-intensive university with a poorly funded library that is about to collapse.

Second, the library represents the university’s heart. It’s where students go to study, and where all the books and journals that publish our research are housed. While a new color scheme is nice, it’s superficial, and does nothing for the university’s core mission: education. The library, on the other hand, represents higher education’s essence: the search for truth.  

But instead of addressing Love Library’s many needs, de la Torre and her Budget Advisory Committee always opt for shiny new projects that may attract headlines, but leave the rest of the campus to fall apart. And the rest of the campus is indeed falling apart.

In addition to library’s infrastructure problems, 35 elevators “are in critical need of replacement.” It’s not clear how many will actually be replaced, but since the ask of $600,000 in the latest round of budget requests is a fraction of the $16.7 million replacement cost, not many.

The 2017 Tremco Roof Condition Report listed 15 roofs as “replace immediately.” How many may be replaced if the request gets approved? Two.

But instead of embarking on a massive capital campaign that would fix the library and address the $1 billion in deferred maintenance needs (and that was in 2020, no doubt the number has risen even higher), the administration comes up with an “updated brand strategy” and spends precious resources devising rules for “when the three secondary colors may be used.”

What are they thinking?

Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and has published essays in Salon, Inside Higher Ed, as well as Times of San Diego. His most recent book is “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11” (Routledge, 2020).