Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Library, or Paying Lip Service to the Life of the Mind

The Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons

When I was an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco, I worked part-time at the public library. The San Francisco Public Library was always at-risk when the city budget was in play.  Years later, when Proposition 13 crippled the California state budget, libraries around the state closed and finding a way to fund an entity that the politicians in Sacramento considered expendable became a major challenge.

In law school, we were taught that the “A” students become professors; the “B” students get rich in business, and the “C” students run for public office, so there is little surprise that the politicians care little for the preservation of knowledge.

Now I find myself as a tenured professor at a Rhode Island state university and the politicians still short-change the university, and the administrators who are supposed to preserve the best of the university and carry it forward, are cutting the library up, page by page. Today we have the excuse of a global economic crisis, but even during the prosperous days of  President Bill Clinton’s administration, the library suffered. For my entire career here, the library has been systematically starved. You know the drill: First they cut fat; then they cut more fat; then they keep talking about fat even as they cut muscle. It takes a while to cut through all the muscle. Then finally, bones are being split and marrow is being scooped out.  If this appears to be mere hyperbole to you, then I ask how you would describe almost 20 years of negative or flat funding even as expenses go up; firing much-needed staff; running the library of the jewel in the crown—our Graduate School of Oceanography—without a doctorate-level specialist?  It sounds like a Tibetan Buddhist Sky Burial: the body of the dead is systematically dismembered, the flesh stripped from the bones, the marrow is scraped out, and finally, the bones are broken into very small bits; then the vultures sweep in to consume every bit; nothing at all is left.

Every state university budget in this country is strained by the cuts in the state budget, but in our case, former president Dr. Robert Carothers treated the library as a second-class citizen from the very beginning of his administration. I arrived in 1993, the third year of his administration, and at the end of a $13.5 million expansion of the library which included a new fa├žade graced with an unattributed epigram by Malcolm X, “MY ALMA MATER WAS BOOKS, A GOOD LIBRARY...I COULD SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE READING JUST SATISFYING MY CURIOSITY.” President Carothers did not initiated the renovation of the library; he inherited it from President Edward D. "Ted" Eddy. Nevertheless, the restored library set the standard for the rest of the Carothers’ administration: When he retired, the physical appearance of the campus had been radically transformed by all his new buildings, $700 million of new buildings and improvements on four campuses. But even though the moving quotation from Malcolm X set the mood of the campus, the contents of the library, both human and books, deteriorated. Librarians were reduced to little more than a skeleton crew.

I do not wish to condemn Dr. Robert Carothers nor demean his many accomplishments. He achieved a great deal despite going head-to-head with a Board of Governors that regarded him as being recalcitrant at best.  I am simply baffled by his blind spot—the library—and wonder how one that cared so much for the university could ignore the organic heart of the university, the library.  The faculty depends on it; the students depend on it and live within its walls.  Why did he give it short shrift?

Then in a baffling tribute, the library was renamed for him when he retired last summer: It became the Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons. Considering his sympathies and the fact the he often joked about his job saying, “And you get your own football team!” I think they should have renamed an athletic complex for him, not the library. If I had been the president, I would have said, "And you get your own library!"

In part, the library was the victim of the winds of change, of a change in societal values as well as a revolution in technology. The advent of computers and their wide distribution during the late 1990s made the acquisition of knowledge much easier but also much more expensive.  Once the computer revolution really took hold in the university, computers and printers not only had to be furnished for the library but also for banks of computers for use by the students in several centers around the campus, and computers and printers had to be provided for the entire faculty. Then they had to be updated as the computer revolution rolled forward with what seemed increasing frequency.  Can you imagine if the amount of money paid for computers and all the attendant technology had been plowed into books, librarians,  and the traditional necessities of the library?

Today it is relatively inexpensive to replace a computer but for the first ten years, new computers cost $1000 or more each. It was a very expensive venture. Somewhere along the line, the library and computers services merged and a new problem emerged: How does one find an administrator who knows both information technology AND university libraries?  At the same time, an unexpected assault hit the library: The price of serials went through the roof as the result of a predatory move by the publishers. They charge a fortune because it is a non-competitive market and they can get away with it; they hold the exclusive rights to publication and a university library is their prime market. In the face of diminishing budgets, the library did the only thing it could; it started cutting back on the number of serials it subscribed to. Every year now, academic departments receive a list of its serials and it is asked which ones can be cut.

Following that, another more productive move took place, and that was to put all the Rhode Island colleges except for Brown into a library consortium. It works but it’s slow. One cannot simply decide that one needs a book and drop into the library to see if it’s in. The books I need which are the newest in the Latin American field are never owned by URI so I am almost always needing books from other colleges. It’s frustrating. Tomorrow, I will go by the Brown University library to borrow the books I am considering for my spring class on Latin American women.

When they cut the budget, the least important items—least important to the administrators—are cut first.  The library is very close to the bottom of the pile. It doesn't make money-making items; it doesn't produce revenue, and it doesn’t produce fund raising dollars. Its value is abstract, and its effect is indirect.  We are told that alumni have no interest in libraries; they are only interested in athletic facilities but I wonder if this isn't a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

The library should be a place the students love, that they spent many of their undergraduate years in happily working. They should think back on many quietly spellbound hours in its stacks.  Wouldn't it stand to reason that they would be in favor of spending their dollars on it once they'd graduated, thinking of it as the true mater (mother) of their alma (souls)?  As long as the library doesn't have the books and journals they need; isn’t opened when they need it to be opened; and as long as it charges an arm and a leg to make print copies in, their feeling towards it will not be warmth but frustration.  Keeping it operating on a bare bones budget does nothing to make them love it or to give it a second thought after they graduate.

The libraries of my youth, my public branch library, the main library and my university libraries, all have deep roots in my soul.  Does our library hook into the souls of our students? How do we do that?  How do we awaken in them a desire to nurture the place that nurtured them?

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