Another in our occasional series on the Great Recession and the crisis in funding public institutions of higher education, with thanks to Moose at Roxie’s World for coining the phrase “Excellence without Money!”
Johann Neem, an Associate Professor of History at Western Washington University, has an article over at Inside Higher Ed called “Reviving the Academic Library.” In his brief comments, he defends the traditional library, something that many librarians are reluctant to do these days. Just read some of the angry comments–most of them from librarians, and some of them well-earned, by the way. Neem writes rather condescendingly about librarians, who are at most universities tenure-track and tenured scholars themselves, and he claims that education can only take place inside university classrooms. That was unfortunate hyperbole, in my view, because in the main I agree with Neem. (Can’t we all just get along?)
In case we’ve forgotten, amidst all those i-Pod downloads and football games and keg parties, Neem explains that “[t]he core purposes of the academy are to teach and to produce new knowledge. Books, journals, music and electronic access to online information sources remain vital for undergraduate students writing research papers or seeking further knowledge. Graduate student and faculty research depends on the depth and breadth of a library’s holdings. In the case of public universities, moreover, library holdings are important for citizens seeking to educate themselves.” In sum, “[t]he library is a means to an end: enabling students and faculty to access archives. This does not denigrate the library’s importance. In fact, it reminds us how important libraries are to the academy and, more generally, to a democratic society.” (I disagree with Neem here too, in that I think it’s fine for the university to provide “clean, well-lighted spaces” for students to work collaboratively. That kind of connection doesn’t always happen or even happen best in classrooms under faculty supervision, but those spaces don’t need to be in the library supplanting space that could be use for collections.)
I’ve been meaning to link back to something Janice Liedl wrote a few days ago in the comments to my previous post on the magical shrinking university libraries that seem to be afflicting many of us:
When you nickel and dime your library, you nickel and dime humanities research which already is thought to be cost-free because we don’t require labs or investigators or the like. But if no one has the books, and no one keeps journals available (whether through leaving the private-sector model or what-have-you), if no one keeps the material available, if no one teaches the students how to use the materials we have, how can we be surprised that libraries turn into Starbucks and study rooms?
Exactly! One of the things I had always considered an advantage in the humanities is the low cost of supporting our research. A really big grant for us is $50,000 or $60,000–that will buy us a year of leave time in which to write. All we need is a library card and the occasional travel grant, and most of us can do pretty well. Now I see that the diffuse nature of our research–much of which happens when we sneak into the shadows of the stacks and can’t be tracked the way internet access to journals can be–actually is a huge disadvantage when it comes to making arguments about the importance of our work. We don’t need to win multimillion dollar grants to build laboratories and hire an army of postdocs. The university invests so little in us that it’s easy to invest even less in us. After all–they’ve just helped build a bunch of new laboratories, so it would be shame to let that kind of investment in research go to waste! (My department has been instructed by our subject librarian to go check out more books in the with Library of Congress call letters that start with B, C, D, E, and F just to prove that we actually use the library collections. She’s fighting the good fight for us, but apparently, some people at Baa Ram U. don’t believe the collections are important if they can’t track their movements electronically and show proof that they’re being “accessed.”)
Here’s a plan: let’s start calling our libraries “Humanities Laboratories” instead. Let’s write mock grant proposals and send them to our librarians and provosts and university presidents that would make the point that libraries to us are not places to go hang out and update our FaceySpace pages. (We do that in our offices, on our university-provided computers, right?) Libraries are our laboratories, and our universities have already spent millions of dollars over the years building them, maintaining them, and adding to the collections. Interlibrary Loan is, for many of us historians, as important as an internet connection in enabling our research on anything other than local history.
If the university really needs more coffee shops and lounges for the encouragement of student collaboration, why not carve out some space in someone else’s lab? From what I’ve seen at Baa Ram U., the engineering building has lots of space that’s not being used to full capacity. . .