Posted by: bluesyemre | May 17, 2018

The Welcoming Labyrinth: What We Gain and Lose as #Libraries Change


Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle

If a book falls off a library shelf and no one hears it, does it make a sound?
This koan-like question has an existential edge in the University of Houston’s library system. Last month the library announced a startling change in plans for the acquisition of books. Instead of ordering books by anticipating faculty and student needs, the library will adopt an increasingly popular strategy known as “patron driven” acquisition. As that term suggests, our library will now order books only when they are directly requested by faculty members. Among other advantages, we are told, this move will allow the library to fund the “growing demands for new types of resources … such as streaming video.”

The announcement sent a chill across campus, with the lowest temperatures registered in the deepening isolation of Humanitiestan. But while shivering is inevitable, the indigenous peoples nevertheless sympathize with the economic realities facing research libraries. It is, after all, the same reality we have long confronted as students and money flow toward STEMistan. Yet these changes do not necessarily portend a new ice age for either humanities professors or research libraries.

Ever since the seventh century BC, when the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal built what is now the world’s oldest royal library — which counted the Epic of Gilgamesh among its 3,000-work collection — libraries have evolved as much as has the nature of the written and printed word. To cite just one example, we tend to believe that library books have been arranged along rows of bookshelves, their spines and titles facing out — except for the inevitable pillars of overdue books in faculty offices — since the dawn of time. Yet this is a recent innovation, no more exempt from change than, say, the physical manner of reading (from lounging to standing to sitting) and the kind of light we use to read (from fireplaces and candles to gas lamps and electric bulbs).

Just as these practices have changed, so, too, has the very meaning of the university library. Like most of my peers, I always believed that a research library’s raison d’être was straightforward: to amass books. Lots of books. In fact, as many books as possible, even though I would never need, much less read, more than an infinitesimal fraction of them. As a grad student, I came to believe in the ideal first expressed by the librarians of ancient Alexandria. Their mission continues to inspire, in the bibliophile and writer Alberto Manguel’s phrase, the “bewildering optimism” that a library could and should contain the sum total of books.

Jorge Luis Borges, who moonlighted as director of Argentina’s national library, has given us the most dizzying expression of this dream. In his short story “The Library of Babel,” he created an infinite library containing every book that has been or will be written. While Borges’s library is coextensive with the universe — in a way, is the universe — its librarians nevertheless spend their lives seeking the catalog of its holdings. Though they will never find it, their access to thousands of the library’s infinite number of hexagonal galleries leads them to “suffer dangerous illusions of what is knowable.”

This illusion dies hard not just in Borges’s story but also in the story of the library I have told myself ever since my graduate days. It is, however, a story that needs to be revised. In North America alone, of the more than one billion books shelved in university libraries, there are about 50 million unique titles.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in library science to measure the consequences: University libraries cannot continue as they have. This is especially true of research libraries, which have been steadily losing financial resources. From 1982 to 2009, university administrations have relentlessly bled their libraries, reducing their share of the total budget from 3.7 percent to less than 2 percent. At the same time, libraries’ traditional functions have atrophied. According to the administrator overseeing “emerging technologies” at my university, the library has registered “decreases in the circulation of the print collection overall.” This comes as no surprise. Whenever I find myself, usually with a stack of books cradled in one arm, standing in a long line at the front desk, the students are not checking out books. Instead, they are checking out laptops and checking in for study rooms. What is surprising is not that an increasing number of students have never stepped into our library, but that they are no longer reluctant to say so.

The students who do step inside do so mostly to meet with other students. Group projects for some, group studying for others, group gossiping for yet others. Like the fake rows of books at a faux English pub, the library’s stacks have been turned into a tasteful if slightly archaic backdrop for the ever greater swaths of open spaces for conference tables and recharging stations. We may eventually adopt the example set by the University of California at Berkeley’s Moffitt Library, which recently unloaded 135,000 books from its collection in order to free more space for common work areas.

James Billington, the recently retired Librarian of Congress, insists that libraries “are places for the pursuit of truth.” As any academic knows after wandering the bare, ruined choirs of abandoned stacks, that pursuit no longer requires books. Sadly, though, this is not the only kind of pursuit we risk losing. Is there not, as well, the pursuit of losing oneself in the welcoming labyrinth of books, in search of one title but waylaid by others? It is in these chance encounters, untouched by algorithm-driven search engines, that we sometimes find a little more of our own selves.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of world cultures and literatures in the department of modern and classical languages and the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author, most recently, of Boswell’s Enlightenment (Harvard University Press, 2015).

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