Should private colleges open libraries to public?

Local schools have different policies, priorities

LOCAL PRIVATE COLLEGES are divided on whether to open or close their libraries to the public.

Harvard University, Northeastern University, and Emerson College don’t allow members of the public to use their libraries, but Boston College, Boston University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tufts University have no problem at all with it.

The contrasting policies reflect differing philosophies about the role of a nonprofit cultural institution. Is their role to serve just students, faculty, and staff, or is the role broader, encompassing the public at large?

Northeastern once allowed the general public to use its library, but no more. Spokeswoman Renata Nyul explains that it’s a matter of volume as to why her institution does not allow the general public to use its library facilities.  The school’s library gets over 2 million visits a year from its students and faculty, she says. “This is a large volume to accommodate and although the public may not be able to use the university library for study space or to check out our books or other materials for example, the Boston Public Library is nearby for the community at large,” Nyul says.

Harvard spokeswoman Anna Burgess similarly notes that the library’s focus is on its own college community, adding that the Harvard libraries provide other opportunities for the general public to take advantage of activities such as public exhibits and film screenings.

Emerson’s website states that due to limited space and resources, the library does not allow the general public to use its facilities.

Harvard, Northeastern and Emerson do allow some researchers to use their libraries under certain circumstances.  At Harvard, they can check items out for a fee of $275 to $750 over a three-month to one-year period.

Boston College, Boston University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tufts University — all private institutions — allow anybody to walk into their libraries and use the facilities, as verified by a reporter’s site visits.  The University of Massachusetts, as a state school, must allow citizens of the Commonwealth to use its library facilities.  The general public cannot check out materials at any of these institutions, however.

“Many of our library spaces, including reading rooms, public computers, stacks, and gallery spaces, are open to visitors,” says MIT spokeswoman Kimberly Allen.

The Boston College library is required to be open to the public, because it is part of the Federal Depository Library Program, which makes government documents available for use by the public, according to spokesman Jack Dunn.

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Suffolk University’s website states, “As a private university, we cannot welcome the general public to our very busy (often quite crowded) library.”  But spokesman Greg Gatlin says that statement is incorrect and the public can use the library.

At Tufts, the public use of the library is part of a broader program of community service.  “We value our relationship with the Medford and Somerville communities and frequently make our facilities available to them such as athletic facilities and fields, meeting rooms, and our convocation center for their high school graduations,” says spokesman Patrick Collins.  “The library is no different in that regard.”

Simmons University also allows the general public to use its library facilities.  “We’d be happy to see you,” said a Simmons librarian cheerfully to a caller inquiring about whether the public could use the library.