February 16, 2018

The Battle of the Books-Again |Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

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Barbara Fister, Peer to Peer Review

It was unfortunate timing. Suzanne Thorin, dean of libraries at Syracuse University, was asked to play the devil’s advocate at EDUCAUSE and went on record as saying "the library, as a place, is dead," earning herself "Bookless Libraries?" as a headline in Inside Higher Ed. Back at home, she faced a revolt of students and faculty who oppose moving books into storage to relieve the shelves in a building that has reached capacity. More than 200 concerned academics, both professors and students, packed a faculty senate meeting. The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s lede for the story described this as "a fight between humanities scholars and the library." Inside Higher Ed declared it "a win for the stacks."

Bookless libraries? Embattled scholars? It’s tempting to think this was just an unfortunate PR problem, a situation in which some faculty failed to get the memo and overreacted, but what we’ve got here is more than a failure to communicate. It’s a power struggle over what a library is—and who gets to decide.

To the barricades! 
Protests against storing books remotely or withdrawing them completely from collections are nothing new. Nicholson Baker made high dudgeon into an art form when he excoriated libraries for their "assault on paper" and other acts of cultural vandalism. More recently protestors gathered in Columbus as Ohio State University prepared to open its newly renovated library, returning over a million books from the places where they had been stored during the renovation but discarding around 275,000 volumes (many of them duplicate copies) because the renovated library had no room for them and the library’s storage facility was nearly full.

Do librarians secretly hate books? Are they slaves of faddish trends, intent on replacing stacks with cafés and computer labs? Is this just one more stake pounded into the heart of the humanities? Or are these protestors hopelessly uniformed romantics who are unwilling to be realistic about the financial impossibility of housing a growing but under-used collection without ever discarding a book, even when nobody has taken it off the shelves in decades?

The true purpose of a library
According to Umberto Eco, in a speech made at the dedication of a new library in Milan (published in Bostonia magazine in 1993), "The whole idea of a library is based on a misunderstanding: that a reader goes to the library to find a book whose title he knows… The essential function of a library is to discover books of whose existence the reader has no idea." The idea that access to massive digitized collections through an Internet browser provides an adequate substitute for physical browsing is a proposition that many humanists dispute vehemently.

In a comprehensive study of the future of the Regenstein library conducted at the University of Chicago, sociologist Andrew Abbott argued for the irreplaceable activity of browsing. He wrote:

gaining knowledge from browsing is not a rare, serendipitous event but rather a constant, routine one… Browsing is a multilevel operation and is taking place continuously in real time during research. There is little theoretical argument showing that browsing can be superceded by most forms of technology and considerable evidence that it is slowed or destroyed by many "efficient" technologies. 

He recommended that the library become a more active site of learning—but not at the expense of books. "Browsing in this extremely broad sense and at all these many levels is thus one thing that absolutely must be protected in the research libraries of the future."

Abbott is not alone in believing that browsing physical books in the stacks is a uniquely fruitful activity. Responding to the Syracuse situation, one blogger says "speaking as a historian—we still need the damn books." She argues that as libraries empty their shelves to provide social spaces, they are trading their purpose and uniqueness for something far less important. "If libraries cede their historic function as a repository of human knowledge and become more concerned about the coffee carts and other amenities they offer their patrons than books, then they’re permitting any Starbucks or airport with wireless access to serve as ‘libraries,’" she writes. (The irony, of course, is that when libraries buy comfy chairs and install coffee bars they are copying the chain bookstores that copied the traditional architectural language of libraries and their abundance—a cultural mise en abyme that Derrida might appreciate.)

Fighting words 
It’s our job to understand what people need from libraries and what they think they mean before we explain the limits we face and the choices that have to be made. We can’t create the library of the future by talking exclusively to other librarians or by watching undergraduates use the library as a comfortable and inspiring place to hang out between classes. We have to understand what libraries mean to people who we may not see in the library all that often.

It’s unreasonable for every library to store every book ever acquired forever simply on the off-chance that Dr. Poindexter might someday discover a rare fact or make a connection others had never seen before, but we can try to understand and respect the manner in which scholars in many disciplines—the ones who love libraries the most—conduct their work and to understand their sense of loss when books leave the library forever.

If nothing else, here are some phrases that librarians should avoid using around humanists, unless they are attempting to demonstrate the existence of human spontaneous combustion.

  • "We need to meet the needs of digital natives." The existence of such natives is greatly exaggerated; besides, if you actually talk to members of this alleged social group, you’ll find they hold books in surprisingly high regard.
  • "The library today is more than a warehouse for books." This is proof that librarians mistake books for inventory, have no soul, and are not to be trusted in the stacks.
  • "The new library will provide one-stop shopping." Aha! Further evidence that the corporatization of the university has completely taken over libraries and that librarians have become pawns of the administration!  

Through a different kind of browsing than the one under dispute, I stumbled across a blog post by Char Booth that argued for unpacking the meaning of our values as clearly as possible. While she finds it challenging to explain what her position, "e-learning librarian," means, she reminds us that "breaking wholly with the past is not an excellent strategy." She goes on to point out that the stereotypes and canards that we’re trying to escape actually matter to many people.

When it comes to advocating for the future of libraries, I have come to believe that embracing the stamping [of books] and shushing as well as the e and learning will be crucial to helping us build a conceptual bridge between then and now: however skewed towards the oldschool perceptions may be, there is still considerable social capital wrapped up in the library/ian mindshare. Ontology balancing therefore becomes a process of gleaning what I can about someone’s information value system and describing the relevant aspects of my own practice as a librarian, technologist, and educator in a way that resonates with their personal experience. Ever mindful of the aforementioned stakes (adaptation v. obsolescence), I try to do so in a way that at once reflects tradition and pushes the relevance envelope.

We should not dismiss the impulses of people who want to defend the library, even when they are defending it from librarians. These are not only our allies who believe libraries have enduring value, they are among the people for whom libraries exist.

And we might take comfort in the fact that while Umberto Eco argued for the serendipitous value of browsing, he also argued for comfortable chairs and a good cup of espresso.

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books in 2010.

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