Libraries, who needs ’em?

An imagined rendering at the library at Alexandria

I’m so confused – how can a university not have a vibrant library culture? Could Alexandria been a center of learning without the care given to the library? I thought that a university, in large part, was the care of the knowledge it is steward of, protects, collects, and ultimately shares.

But according to Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning and programs in the University of California System, in a recent Inside Higher Ed article,” The university library of the future will be sparsely staffed, highly decentralized, and have a physical plant consisting of little more than special collections and study areas.”

Ok. We’re moving to new models of gathering, storing, and sharing information. Except, well, how does learning happen in a community then? Greenstein goes on to say,

“There are national discussions about how and to what extent we can begin to collaborate institutionally to share the cost of storing and managing books. That trend should keeping continuing as capital funding is scarce, as space constraints are severe, especially on urban campuses — and, frankly, as funding needs to flow into other aspects of the academic program.”

The article goes on to explain that under this system,

 “individual university libraries would no longer have to curate their own archives in order to ensure the long-term viability of old texts, Greenstein said. “What is the proportion of a library budget that is just consumed by the care and cleaning of books?” he said. “It’s not a small number.”

If the university is no longer curating its own archives, then what precisely is its purpose? Why wouldn’t a university curate its collection – isn’t that a core piece to the university? To house knowledge – you know, the stuff we get in books and the internet and stuff.  Why does Greenstein speak with such disdain of the “care and cleaning of books?”

Because books are less necessary than before, and we have other mediums, does that mean that we should dismiss them. What role does the library play in developing a space for an intellectual citizenry?

Reminds me of Mark Slouka‘s September article in Harper’s Magazine “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school.”  The language used by Greenstein, seems to echo what Slouka suggests about the value of certain disciplines – and whether those disciplines can be commodified. Slouka also discusses the insertion of business and consumption language (ROI -return on investment, outsources, decentralized, cost sharing, management of books) into education and what that means to how we value and think about learning – especially when it comes to the humanities.

I actually see the role of libraries and librarians increasing in importance and usefulness, because librarians are trained to dissect, catalogue and understand what information is most useful. In an information age, librarians and trained researchers become scholars in and of themselves, and offer an invaluable service.

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