When All Your Books Disappear
What Does It Say about Higher Education When Colleges Liquidate Their Libraries?
Earlier this month, the Vermont State Colleges System announced dramatic changes to its libraries. “Bye-bye, books,” said the school in so many words. Citing cost savings and data from students about desired uses for physical spaces, administrators plan to take college libraries fully digital July 1, 2023.
Print? Paper? Passé.
Large concerns loom behind such decisions, and it’s possible the move was entirely necessary. Excluding politicians who promise virginal purity to Social Security and Medicare, forecasted insolvency makes everyone a bit anxious.
But surely the Physical Book occupying space on a shelf locatable in a library counts as a third rail of higher education, no?
I’ve recently written about five benefits of maintaining a personal library. Reasons number more than these, naturally, but five seemed enough to make the case that building a library represents the acme of intellectual and psychological maturity.
Do I overstate? Sure. Am I wrong? Not really.
Libraries serve as primary tools for informational work. And while there are wonderful ways in which those tools are improved by digital affordances—thank God, e.g., for the ability to search keywords and phrases—some faculties of print culture can’t be beat by ones and zeroes, no matter how artfully arranged.
Most of my analysis of private working libraries transfers to public collections, except their usefulness is amplified by size and scope. What’s true for personal collections is a hundred times more so for a decent collegiate library.
No one thinks of a bookcase as a highly developed user interface, but that’s exactly what it is. And when it’s arranged with a systematic program for retrieval, most any book is findable within minutes. That’s a wonder all of its own. But the miracle grows when the searcher finds Book X and then randomly spots Book Y or Z a few slots over, on another shelf down, or when they turn to sit on the floor and browse their initial discovery.
Often Book Y or Z, not Book X, holds the key to the mystery they’re attempting to unlock. And it’s unlikely an algorithm would have served it up; the novel nature of true discovery undercuts the possibility.
A good library isn’t just an insight machine; it’s also a serendipity engine that curates enough relevance and proximity to engender surprise connections and open new passageways for learning and discovery.
I suppose digital collections might correct that deficiency in their programming; data scientists are a smart bunch. But so far they’re not planning on it in Vermont.
Interlibrary loan for digital assets will still be available, the school assures. And students can request new digital assets. But the school will only purchase research materials on an as-needed basis.
“Moving forward,” according to the school’s statement, “the library will be purchasing those items that our faculty and students need, [on] an evidence-based acquisition model (EBA), rather than purchasing items that have not been requested.” Unless you know what you need, in other words, you can’t get what you need.
This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how research actually happens.
The school appealed to its budget when rationalizing its prudence-evoking phrase and sterile acronym. But let’s state what anyone who has actually done research knows as well as their own shoes: Nobody knows what they need until they explore what’s already there.
“The ugly fact is,” as Cormac McCarthy once said, “books are made out of books.” But what if you can’t get those books to begin with?
Research leads to more research and, as Eugene Vodolazkin says, “never . . . in a straight line.” That’s how it works. But if the initial research and its winding path is hampered and halted by inferior interfaces, insufficient resources, and red-taped requests for more, you can bet you’ll get less of the resultant research.
It takes information to cultivate and reward curiosity. The best way to access it—in conjunction with digital resources, I quickly and wholeheartedly agree—is patterned after the peculiar molecular structure known for roughly two thousand years as a codex and placed upright on a shelf, spine out as we’ve been doing since the late Renaissance, next to tens of thousands more just like it as we’ve been doing for the last few hundred years.
Can you improve on this arrangement? Naturally. Sergey Brin and Larry Page wouldn’t have jobs otherwise. But replacing is a different question entirely and one that seems hard to prove as anything other than a fool’s errand—though one with the elevated probability of producing more fools. Or at least ignoramuses.
Rotten in the State of Vermont
Does a college have a reason for existing beyond facilitating research and the intellectual and personal growth that accompanies it?
The very real budget and space constraints don’t argue against physical books. If that’s your problem, you’ve got a much bigger problem. No one would tolerate a licensed auto dealership that only serviced whatever parts of your car they could easily reach. If a college says liquidating their libraries is the only way to make their budget work, they’re missing what the budget is for in the first place.
I fully admit the challenge of wrestling with impending insolvency. But the school’s solution would seem to undermine the very project they’re instituted to pursue in the first place.
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