And Then They Came For the Books

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I heard from a friend the other day that the library is slowly going the way of the buffalo, so I reminded my friend that the buffalo was hunted to extinction by thoughtless settlers. My friend nodded sagely and responded, “Exactly.”

That comment struck me. Even with all the hullaballoo surrounding education crises, budget cuts, record-level tuition rates and worker exploitations, I had never stopped to consider the health of our research libraries.

I asked my friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) to continue with her buffalo theory. We took a seat in the park and she explained that, like a herd of buffalo, a university’s library is both exceedingly large and exceedingly vulnerable. In fact, its size is part of its vulnerability.

“Nobody thinks anything,” she said, “if 10 percent of 3 million buffalo disappear and, likewise, nobody worries if 10 percent of 3 million books are moved out of a library.”

Taken aback, I replied that it wasn’t as though our library system was going through any massive restructuring, during which our stacks would be substantially reduced!

“True,” she assented, “but you have to look at the bigger picture. Surely you can tell me the most pressing issues facing university libraries?”

“I’m no library scientist,” I admitted reluctantly, “but I hear that digitization and online research are big issues. So is the devaluation of the book as a medium for sharing information and ideas. And, of course, we all want to know if the space taken up by a stuffy old library couldn’t be better used.”

As I said this, a smile passed over her face, one I have seen many times in the past. As always, I had played right into her trap.

“There’s a deadly flaw right at the heart of digital scholarship,” she chided me. “It isn’t a problem that research materials are available in digital collections now, the problem is that the assumption by many lay-observers is that all knowledge is now digital.”

“I can’t see what’s so troubling about that; you can find anything on the Internet these days,” I retorted.

“And what of the things you cannot find? Are they no longer things? Do they not exist if you cannot find them on Bing?”

“But,” she added, “this only leads into the next problem. Digital research, which is also known in many circles as checking Facebook while pretending to write a paper at 4 o’clock in the morning, has come to the fore at the same time that conventional research has lost its cultural value.”

She could tell by the look on my face that she had lost me.

“You see,” she said, shifting tones, “There’s an old tradition in this country of powerful people who embrace ignorance. You know, like Sarah Palin.”

It clicked. She meant that as a culture we have become exceedingly anti-intellectual. We pass gut feelings off as facts and we pass AskJeeves searches off as thoughtful research.

Of course, she wouldn’t let me get away with just blaming young people and MTV for our being effectively illiterate.
“Let’s return to that third issue,” she suggested. “Why are there colleges in this country that make it a priority to reapportion library space?”

I was lost again.

“For instance, there are schools that reduce their collections to make their libraries more ‘student friendly.’ Yet, what is more student friendly than a full library? Why should they turn to extra-academic enticements to attract students?”
With that, I had to be on my way but the conversation and those final questions stayed with me. Our libraries are losing funding, hours are being scaled back drastically, salaries are being reduced and our many research librarians are being forced to do more work for less money.

Indeed, our librarians are paid so little that, even if they were to pool their money together, they couldn’t afford to offer me any more than a modest bribe to write an effusively positive article about libraries.

All joking aside, we have to consider what happens after those regressive measures. We have been taught not to care about our own edification. Then we lost our ability to think critically and do real research. Then we stopped seeing the importance of our libraries. And then?

Then they come for the books.

Of course, here I am, writing in a newspaper that you, dear reader, are likely reading on a laptop in a lecture hall. But, if my conversation with my friend has taught me one thing, it is never too late to develop a relationship with the library. So try the reference desk on the first floor of Langson Library. They’ll help you learn more about Plato than Wikipedia could ever know.

James Bliss is a fifth-year political science, women’s studies and African-American studies major. He can be reached at jbliss@uci.edu.

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