Chapter 1: Historical overview of academic branch libraries – Academic Branch Libraries in Changing Times


Historical overview of academic branch libraries


This chapter briefly discusses the beginnings of branch libraries. First known as collegiate or departmental libraries, branch libraries are distinctive libraries separate from the main library building, but managed either independently (decentralized) or by the main library (centralized). A short overview of the two Academic Research Libraries (ARL) surveys on branch libraries (1983 and 1999) is provided and discussed. A summary of the current situation using the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) web comparison tool and an analysis of the ARL academic libraries web pages is presented. The University of Maryland Libraries, with its seven branches, represents the average academic university library in the US as far as branch library presence is concerned. A history of branch development at the University of Maryland (UM) Libraries, and the current state of the UM Libraries close the chapter.

Key words

branch libraries

departmental libraries

collegiate libraries

Academic Research Libraries (ARL)

The beginnings

There are multiple brief studies of the history of academic branch libraries. The most notable are the papers published by:

 Louis T. Ibbotson (‘Departmental Libraries’ in 1925),

 Laurence Thompson (‘The Historical Background of Departmental and Collegiate Libraries’ in 1942),

 Arthur T. Hamlin (The University Library in the United States; Its Origins and Development – more specifically the chapter ‘The Problem of the Departmental Library’ in 1981), and

 Robert A. Seal (‘Academic Branch Libraries’ in 1986).

There is no need to repeat these well-known and highly cited works. Some of their key observations, however, will be highlighted. This book will look at the status of branch libraries since these works were published. Also, as Shkolnik would say: ‘A small college has less need for branches than does a large university. The debate, therefore, really pertains only to the largest and most research-oriented academic communities’ (Shkolnik, 1991: 345). The emphasis of this book will be on large research libraries, more specifically ARL Academic Libraries in the US. See Appendix B for a list of ARL Academic Libraries in the US.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Mary C. Venn, in Libraries in 1929, argued:

Department libraries are the natural outgrowth of the days when libraries were mere prisons for books. These books were largely given to the library, because their usefulness was gone for their original owner. The librarians were held so strictly accountable for their care that they were afraid to lose control of them, let alone allowing one to go out of their sight

Venn continues:

[M]ore modern professors, about the Civil War days, kept his books in his office. He liberally loaned the books to his students, who came to him for reading – he was more approachable than the librarian who guarded his books as a lioness her cubs.

She concludes: ‘Thus the departmental or professorial libraries became the more alive collection and grew, while the main library didn’t grow so fast’ (Venn, 1929: 193).

A few years before, Louis T. Ibbotson, reference librarian at Duke University, Durham, NC, in the Library Journal, in 1925, states the following:

Departmental libraries started as a protest. Nothing much was said, but now we can see that at a certain juncture in American education, books were imperatively needed – and the university library, so called, was asleep. On the whole, it had never been awake, and it was very slow in waking. (Ibbotson, 1925: 853)

The term branch libraries was for a long time associated with public libraries (Seal 1986: 176). In literature, almost to the mid-1950s, the terms collegiate or departmental libraries were used more often when referring to what we today consider branch academic libraries.

Even Shkolnik, head of reference at D’Youville College Library in Buffalo, NY, when writing in 1991, in his paper states that ‘for the purposes of this paper, the terms departmental and branch library will be used interchangeably’ (Shkolnik, 1991: 34).

Today, however, departmental and branch libraries mean different things, and in 1942, Lawrence Thompson wrote:

Today the general trend is away from departmental and collegiate libraries as they have existed in the past as a result of the growing instance on centralization by both faculty and libraries; but this has been possible principally because of certain conditions which were relatively unimportant or unrecognized in the early part of this century. (Thompson, 1942: 49)

Thompson goes on to list these factors as ‘construction of new buildings in the 1920s, technical improvements in library service, and the increasing interdependence of all branches of knowledge’ (Thompson 1942: 50).

Shkolnik, in his article ‘The continuing debate over academic branch libraries’, gives an excellent historical overview of the organization of branch libraries and their evolution. He argues that the concept for a branch or

distinctive departmental library separate from the main library building … grew out of the seminar movement in late nineteenth-century Germany. German faculty members found it preferable to use their own collections of books … rather than rely on … antiquated, library system. Their books were … kept in the faculty members’ offices for easier access. (Shkolnik, 1991: 343)

A recent shift in the use of the term ‘seminar library’ is somewhat confusing. In the early American universities and still today on the Continent it is synonymous with ‘departmental library’

writes Thompson 1942: 51. He continues:

Recently, however, ‘seminar library’ has frequently been used for small collections, sometimes only about a dozen books, charged to the seminar for its duration. Therefore, care must be taken in distinguishing departmental from seminar libraries in America during the last twenty years.

Some departmental libraries are still called seminar libraries because of tradition. (Thompson, 1991: 51)

The use of the term branch library and its organization is used in an academic setting in 1991 in Leon Shkolnik’s article published in Research and College Libraries:

Over the past century, librarians have debated the organization of the academic library. Two distinct schools have developed, each advancing logical and persuasive arguments … Should the academic library be centralized in one main building or should it be decentralized into several branches based on differing divisional schemes? (Shkolnik 1991: 343)

J. C. M. Hanson, Associate Director of the Chicago Libraries from 1910 to 1928, argued during his tenure at Chicago that closing departmental libraries would save money on duplicate collections and increase efficiency. In 1943 he published in The Library Quarterly his observations of the relations of central vs. departmental libraries based on his experience at the University of Chicago Libraries. Although published in 1943, the article ‘Central versus Departmental Libraries’ supplements and summarizes his earlier studies, from 1912 and 1917. In closing, Hanson states:

It is my belief that, in the long run, economic considerations must decide the issue, not the personal convenience or predilections of professor or librarian. The pity is that before a definite and feasible policy has been settled upon, hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of dollars will have been spent on experiments that lead nowhere and on equipment and books which have served only a temporary purpose. (Hanson, 1943: 135)

For her paper ‘Departmental Libraries’ published in 1929, Mary C. Venn, reference librarian at Oberlin College Library, Ohio, surveyed the 33 college libraries in the Central West with more than 30,000 volumes acquisition. The questionnaire asked the following three questions:

1. What departments had libraries?

2. How were the books bought?

3. Who took care of them?

Of the 33 total libraries surveyed, 26 responded to the inquiry. Five did not have any library outside the main library (departmental or laboratory); five did not have departmental, but did have laboratory. Of the remaining 16, the most popular departments with libraries were: Chemistry (10), Physics (8), Biology (7), Mathematics (4), Astronomy (3), and General Science (3). Venn admits there were some additional subjects, but the sciences led, proving that ‘the faculty in science and technical field favor departmentalization, while those in the humanities are for centralization’. (Venn, 1929: 195)

Table 1.1

Branch Subject Libraries in the Central West Colleges (1929 survey)

Subject No. branches
Astronomy 3
Biology 7
Chemistry 10
General Science 3
Mathematics 4

Figure 1.1 Branch Subject Libraries in the Central West Colleges (1929 survey)

The state of academic research branch libraries

ARL conducted two surveys on branch libraries in 1983 and 1999 which resulted in SPEC Kit 99 (Branch Libraries in ARL Institutions) and 255 (Branch Libraries and Discrete Collections). For more recent data (2008) we looked at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) comparison tool. A brief review of ARL academic member libraries from the United States libraries’ websites was used to find out the most common branch libraries listed. When using survey data or using data posted on the web, we should always keep in mind the following Thompson statement:

Before attempting to deal with the historical development of departmental libraries, the wisest preliminary would be to inspect the many widely variant interpretations of the term. This has been a source of much confusion in the past, and it emphasizes the need for great caution in citing comparative figures on departmental libraries as quoted in surveys and directories. (Thompson 1942: 50)

Implementing this statement has proven very difficult, since definitions have evolved over the years, and the interpretation of those definitions has been uneven.

Branch libraries in ARL institutions (SPEC Kit 99)

In May 1983 a survey on branch libraries was distributed to the 117 Academic Research Libraries (ARL) members (104 university library members and 13 research libraries). The response rate was overwhelming as 94 university libraries, or 90 percent, responded. All but five reported having branches. Although the questionnaire asked for information on subject areas, staff, and number of volumes, the administrative status for each branch was an important aspect analyzed. The survey showed that the majority, or two-thirds, have a centralized system, with an average of 6.37 branches per library. The libraries reporting decentralized systems, on the other hand, have on average 12.57 branches per library, or double the amount. However, ‘some respondents noted that they had difficulty in deciding what information to report because the survey terminology for describing branches varies from local terms such as "departmental library" and "reading room". Most chose to interpret the guidelines broadly’. (Association of Research Libraries, 1983: 1)

Some other interesting findings:

 22 respondents had opened 24 new branches during the preceding five years (1978–1983).

 17 had closed branches. Collections were returned to the main library or moved to other campus locations.

 24 had merged two or more collections.

 2 were planning to close branch libraries.

 27 indicated that they were considering merging collections.

As stated in the survey: ‘Table 3 provides information on how many branches there are in a particular subject area, and what subjects are most frequently combined in branches. The table contains many duplicate listings, and for that reason, has no totals’. However, one can easily deduce that the majority of the branches are in the science and mathematics category.

The SPEC Kit also included Staff Size in Most Frequently Reported Branch Type (Table 4). According to this table, these are the most frequently reported branch types: Music (49), followed by Mathematics (44), Engineering (39), Physics (38) and Chemistry (37). It is interesting that more than half of the libraries with branches had a Music branch and half had a Mathematics branch (Table 1.2 and Figure 1.2).

Table 1.2

Number of branches per type, ARL 1983 survey

Branch Type No. Branches % of 89 responses
Architecture 33 37%
Business 34 38%
Chemistry 37 42%%
Engineering 39 440%
Geology 31 35%
Mathematics 44 49%%
Music 49 550%
Physics 38 430%
Rare books/Special Collections 23 26%%
Sciences 23 26%%
Undergraduate 22 25%

Figure 1.2 Number of branches per type, ARL 1983 survey

In 1983 automation was in its infancy but being embraced by libraries, including branch libraries. The executive summary recognizes that ‘extending automated library systems to branches can re-integrate holdings though improved computer access to information about dispersed collections, and provides an alternative to the need for a new facility for a centralized collection’. According to this survey most branch library automation projects involved circulation systems and online catalogs.

Branch libraries and discrete collections (SPEC Kit 255)

In early 1999, Karen S. Croneis and Bradley H. Short sent a survey to all 122 ARL member libraries. The return rate this time was substantially smaller as only 54 libraries responded to the survey or 44 percent of the total survey/questions sent out. The survey results were published in Spec Kit 255 – Branch Libraries and Discrete Collections. In the executive summary it is noted:

Branch Libraries exist in academia for many reasons. Prompted by changing circumstances and evolving technological capabilities, libraries periodically wrestle with the question of centralizing or decentralizing services and collections. After weighing a complex set of trade-offs concerning user needs and organizational realities, institutions decide to add, close, or merge collection locations.

The authors continue:

[T]here is no single best course of action. In 1983, libraries used automated circulation systems to combine branch library operations and provide intellectual integration of in-house library collections. The current generation of technological tools gives libraries the ability to integrate resources from both inside and outside the library.

The authors conclude:

Internet gateways and websites significantly influence the ways patrons perceive and use libraries. User attitudes and behaviors are changing in ways libraries do not yet fully understand. Nonetheless, libraries are compelled to look once again at issues of centralization and decentralization. (Croneis, 1999: 7)

According to this survey, most branch libraries serve science and technology subjects (82 percent), followed by arts and humanities (75 percent) and social sciences (61 percent). The average of all responses:

a hypothetically ‘average’ institution has 15 discrete collection locations: four science and technology, two arts and humanities, two social sciences, two combined collections, two area studies, one undergraduate, and two other collections, of which media resources and maps are the most frequently mentioned. (Croneis, 1999: 8)

Factors that were taken into consideration and influenced an institution’s decision to add, close, or merge collection locations included:

 academic or program change

 service or access considerations

 political or administrative considerations of the university, school, department or the library

 costs or funding

 technology or computer considerations.

Less than half of the institutions that responded to the survey indicated that they had a change during the preceding five years (1995–1999). Most indicated that they had closed or merged their branches. The largest number of closures or mergers were in the science and technology area, with social sciences a distant second. Also, the libraries surveyed indicated that they planned on closing or merging collections in the future. Again, the largest number anticipated to be closed were science and technology branches/collections, with arts and humanities this time a distant second. It is also interesting that the availability of electronic resources was not an overwhelmingly influential factor in the planning process. Table 1.3 summarizes the changes between 1995 and 1999 and anticipates the changes in the following five years.

Table 1.3

Changes in branches by broad categories, ARL 1999 survey

June 2010 brief web analysis

On June 7, 2010, websites from all public and private ARL member US universities (a total of 101 libraries) were printed and the information regarding their branch libraries was later analyzed. (See Appendix B for the list of institutions.) Table 1.4 and Figure 1.3 shows the summary of the number of branch libraries by type. The most common branch libraries, as the table illustrates, are Music (44) and Engineering, Mathematics and Architecture (27 each). These results are very similar to the findings from 1983, although the numbers are lower. (Subject distribution and analysis of the results will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 2: Types of Branch Libraries.)

Table 1.4

Number of branches by subject/type, 2010 data from websites

Branch type No. branches % of 101 libraries
Architecture 27 27%%
Art 14 14%%
Business 19 19%%
Chemistry 20 20%%
East Asian 10 10%%
Engineering 27 27%%
Fine Arts 17 17%%
Geology 11 11%%
Mathematics 27 27%%
Music 46 46%%
Physics 15 15%%
Rare Books/Special Collections 22 22%%
Science 17 17%%
Science and Engineering 21 21%%
Undergraduate 9 9%%

Figure 1.3 Number of branches per type, 2010 data from websites

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 2008 data

More recent data on branch libraries from ARL is not easily available. However, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) provides a powerful and useful online comparison tool. A comparison search of the University of Maryland to the Carnegie Classification Doctoral/Research UniversitiesExtensive (total of 150 libraries) limiting to Academic Libraries Characteristics: Number of Branch Libraries, reveals that the group average is seven branch libraries (UM Libraries is listed as having eight branches). (Table 1.5)

Table 1.5

National Center for Education Statistics Academic Libraries Survey Fiscal Year 2008 – Partial Table (see full table in Appendix A) NCES 2008 Data: Classification Doctoral/Research Universities – Extensive

The entire table lists the name of the university library and the number of branches reported in 2008. The list is pretty extensive (all 150 institutions are listed); the entire table is provided in Appendix A. However, another way of looking at the data is provided in Figure 1.4. The Figure shows the breakdown of the number of branches per number of institutions.

Figure 1.4 Number of branches/number of libraries NCES 2008 data: Classification Doctoral/ Research Universities – Extensive

Although the range of number of branch libraries is pretty big, going from 0 to 70, the majority of research libraries, or 75 percent, have anywhere between one and nine branch libraries. The University of Maryland Libraries, with its seven branches, can be considered the average academic university library in the US.

Note on the NCES data. NCES defines a branch library as follows:

Branch and independent libraries are defined as auxiliary library service outlets with quarters separate from the central library that houses the basic collection.

The central library administers the branches. In ALS (Academic Libraries Survey), libraries on branch campuses that have separate NCES identification numbers are reported as separate libraries. (, accessed October 17, 2010).

Despite this definition, its interpretation varies by each institution. Harvard University Library, with the largest number of libraries stands out among all. In a November 2009 report of the Task Force on University Libraries this fact is recognized:

The Harvard library structure is unique among great universities for its degree of decentralization and its often internally incompatible modes of operation. While the University has an overarching library body, the Harvard University Library (HUL), most of the 73 constituent libraries are funded by and report to the different faculties of the University or to departments within them.

The Task Force suggests:

Perpetuation of the current administrative structure promises to hold the University captive to frozen accidents of history, rather than facilitating the development of new strengths and fostering an agile organization for the twenty-first century. (Harvard University, 2009: 3)

Evolution of branch libraries at the University of Maryland

The University of Maryland opened in 1859 as the Maryland Agricultural College. It received its current name, University of Maryland, in 1920 after it merged with the University of Maryland at Baltimore. Since the beginning the institution had a library. At first the collection contained materials supporting agriculture, but quickly expanded to other subject areas. The University Archives have documents that state that in 1894 the library was housed on the second floor of a two story building (the building no longer exists). In 1925, the University of Maryland was granted accreditation by the Association of American Universities. As the University expanded its programs, especially in the period between 1935 and 1954, enrollment increased and many buildings were constructed. In this period the first two branch libraries opened – the Engineering and Physical Sciences Library, EPSL, in 1949 and the Chemistry Library in 1953. More use of libraries and laboratories was encouraged. (Callcott, 2005: 76)

The next three decades were devoted to further expanding library facilities and services. The building for the main library, McKeldin, was completed in 1958. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Library was expanded in 1968; the Chemistry Library moved to its present location in 1975 and was renamed Charles E. White Library, in honor of the 1960–1967 chair of the department. Two years earlier, in 1973, two other branches opened – Hornbake Library, for undergraduate students, and the Architecture Library. On the fourth floor of Hornbake was the Nonprint Media Center, the first section of the libraries devoted solely to audio-visual materials. In 1979 another branch opened – the Art Library. The latest addition is the Performing Arts Library, opened in 2000. The undergraduate library closed in 1997; the collection and staff moved to McKeldin Library. The Hornbake Library now houses Special Collections, the Archives, and the Nonprint Media Center.

In the University Archives, the following 1973 profile of the University of Maryland, College Park Libraries is given:

The McKeldin Library, with its bookstack capacity of 1,000,000 volumes and its reader capacity of 2,000, is the general and main library of the University, containing reference works, periodicals, circulating books, and other materials in most fields of research and instruction. This library mainly supports the graduate and research programs of the University; but it is also open to undergraduates. In addition, it serves as the back-up library to all other libraries on the campus.

The Undergraduate Library, with its seating capacity of 4,000 and its bookstack capacity of 200,000 volumes, is planned to meet most library needs of the approximately 27,000 undergraduate students. Books, periodicals, and nonprint media have been carefully selected to include what undergraduate students need to use in their programs. Equipment and facilities in the ‘electronic library’ include color video-tape players and playback units, room equipped with instructors’ consoles for use of nonprint materials, wireless stereo headsets for listening to tapes of lectures, plays, speeches, and music, and a quadrophonic sound room. The Undergraduate Library also features a special collection of five thousand paperbacks. Library service is provided by the forty-five staff members and is geared to meeting the needs of undergraduates.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Library, with a book capacity of 200,000 volumes and a seating capacity of 650, serves as a special library to meet the study and research needs of students, faculty, and researchers in the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Engineering, the Department of Industrial Education, and other related units. Its resources include relevant reference books, journals, monographs, and thousands of reports of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and of the Atomic Energy Commission.

The Chemistry Library, with its book capacity of 75,000 volumes and its reader capacity of 190, meets the specialized needs of the students and faculty of the Department of Chemistry. Similarly, the Architecture Library, with its book capacity of 18,000 volumes and its reader capacity of 50, meets most of the library needs of the students and faculty of the School of Architecture. (Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries)

Table 1.6

University of Maryland, University of Maryland Libraries Timeline

March 6, 1856 Maryland Agriculture College Chartered
October 6, 1859 Opening day and formal dedication of the Maryland Agricultural College
July 11, 1862 First degrees awarded
1864-66 College is bankrupt; becomes a preparatory school
July 1862 President Lincoln signs the Morrill Land Grant Act providing federal support for state colleges to teach agriculture, mechanical arts and military tactics
February 1866 College becomes, in part, a state institution
1867 College reopens with 11 students
1887 Hatch Act created federally funded agricultural experiment stations
1890 Second Morrill Act provides direct federal funding for technical education ‘without distinction of race or color’
1894 Library housed on the second floor of a two story building (the building torn down in the late 1950s)
1914 Smith-Lever Act encourages land-grant colleges to establish home economics courses
1914 College library merged with the library of the Agricultural Experiment Station to form a single library under one administrator
1916 State takes over full control of college, changes name to Maryland State College
1916 First women enrolled
1919 College organized into seven schools; Agriculture, Engineering, Arts and Sciences, Chemistry, Education, Home Economics, and Graduate School (including Summer School); preparatory school abolished
April 9, 1920 Consolidation of University of Maryland links College Park and Baltimore campuses
1920 Graduate School awards first Ph.D. degrees; of a total of 517 students, 20 are women
November 1925 University granted accreditation by the Association of American Universities
1935-1954 Many residence halls and classroom buildings constructed; enrollment increases from 2,000 students in 1935 to 3,500 in 1940 and nearly 5,000 by 1945
1931 The library moved into a new building, Shoemaker Hall, and occupied the second floor
1937 The College Park library merged with the Baltimore campus library to fall under a single administrative head
1949 Engineering and Physical Sciences Library opened
1951 First African American graduate and undergraduate student enrolls at College Park
1953 Chemistry Library opened
1958 McKeldin Library building completed
1968 Engineering and Physical Sciences Library enlarged
1973 Hornbake Library opened. Housed the Undergraduate Library
1973 Architecture Library opened
1975 Chemistry Library moved to present location in Biochemistry wing (Chemistry building)
1979 Art Library opened
Fall 1985 College Park enrollment reaches 38,679, the highest in its history
July 1, 1988 The five University of Maryland campuses reorganized with the six Board of Trustees institutions to form a University of Maryland System; College Park is designated the flagship university of the new system
1997 Undergraduate Library closed. Collection and staff moved to McKeldin. Special Collections/Archives moved to Hornbake
1999 Performing Arts Library opened
2000 Universities at Shady Groves established
2007 Shady Grove Library moves to the new Education Building
2010 School of Life Sciences & Chemistry merged with the College of Computer, Mathematical & Physical Sciences.

Note: Text in italic relates to UM Libraries

(adapted from: and Both accessed May 3, 2010)


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