Showing students how to read critically and formulate research queries is part of the teaching function of college libraries. But how do you teach students to read critically that which has no text?
That is the challenge Frances May, an adjunct librarian at the University of North Texas, took on when she decided to adapt her library’s orientation program to meet what she sees as a growing demand for “visual literacy” among today’s college students.
On April 14, 2003 -- seven years ago today, and just over two weeks before George W. Bush declared “the end of major combat operations in Iraq” – the National Library in Iraq burned down. About a million books were destroyed; another blaze consumed several million documents at the National Archive. University libraries throughout Iraq met similar fates. Meanwhile there was looting of museums that contained some of the oldest-known human records -- composed with reeds on pieces of moist clay, some five thousand years ago.
To quote Donald Rumsfeld from one of his discourses on Stoic philosophy: “Stuff happens.” Perhaps we should look on the bright side. The records of Iraq’s Ministry of Oil were spared – their integrity secured through the carefully-prepared deployment of U.S. troops.
Fernando Báez, the director of Venezuela’s National Library, visited the country a few weeks later and saw fragments of Iraq’s cultural patrimony being sold in the street for pennies each. The English translation of Báez’s A Universal History of the Destruction of Books (first published in Spain in 2004) has appeared in paperback from Atlas & Co., just in time to mark this terrible anniversary.
The ruins in Baghdad were not the first he had seen. In 1999, Báez had been part of a team that inspected what remained of the National Library in Sarajevo, where 1.5 million volumes and more than 10,000 manuscripts were destroyed by firebombing during the civil war. On that tour, a poet had told him, “Each destroyed book is a passport to hell.” The pages of his Universal History describe hundreds of occasions of biblioclasty and libricide from scores of countries – beginning in ancient Sumer, where the first libraries gathered cuneiform tablets. One of the surviving documents includes a ruler’s order, during a war, “to reduce the country and the city to ruins.... he had fixed as their destiny the annihilation of their culture.” This is at least more forthright than "Stuff happens."
Báez’s work has overtones from the writings of Jorge Luis Borges -- another librarian, as it happens. Its title calls to mind both the older author's bibliocentrism (“The Library of Babel”) and his crime fiction (A Universal History of Infamy). Báez himself comes across as something like a Borgesian character, given to assembling, but only obliquely integrating, the most far-flung bits of erudition -- much of it gathered by force of obsession.
In that regard, A Universal History also resembles Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), which is the prototype of the learned miscellany. While not technically a librarian, Burton was a fervent book collector, and his Anatomy is, in part, a meditation on the complicated relationship between reading and the rest of one’s state of mind.
Borges was a consummate ironist, and Burton often wrote with a satirical edge. Báez seems altogether more earnest sort. He traces his preoccupation with the topic at hand to the horror of witnessing, as an adolescent, the ritual of students burning their textbooks at the end of the school year. It was “a tradition as contemptible as it is ancient,” he writes, sounding a bit indignant that still his classmates mocked him for protesting.
Báez quotes some remarks on this practice by Salvador Garcia Jimenez:
“At one of the upper schools to which I was sent as a teacher, students burned several books at the end of the school year out on the basketball court. The faculty made itself ridiculous by standing there gaping, not knowing the key Freud gave to understanding that action with his interpretation of an episode from the childhood of Goethe. When Goethe throws the china out of the window after his brother’s birth, he’s carrying out a symbolic act through which he shows his desire to throw the baby out of the window because the baby has disturbed his world. For those students, the literature manual they toss on the fire represents their demanding, stupid, and pedantic schoolmarm.”
The tradition remains alive. Báez has updated his book since its initial appearance and mentions several recent incidents of textbook sacrifice. One reportedly occurred in the summer of 2007 when a student receiving her master’s degree in library and information studies from Florida State University “celebrated the end of her formal scientific education by burning her books.”
An appalling story, if true -- but here we run up against the book’s most obvious failing: The notes at the back give very detailed source information on some points, and none at all on others. I spent a little while trying to locate an online account of the Florida State story, with no success. Browning Brooks, the director of news and public affairs at FSU, had never heard of it, and he wondered if perhaps it had occurred at another school. This may be the academic equivalent of an urban legend.
In his opening pages, Báez encourages anyone so inclined to dip into A Universal History at random. Ignoring this, I read the book in traditional fashion, but can see that the author’s advice is sound. While presented in more or less chronological order, its coherence is that of a scrapbook, rather than a narrative. Báez offers some very provisional speculations on the urge to destroy books, but they really only apply in some cases. After all, plenty of titles have been lost to us through neglect or accident, rather than by dint of some destructive impulse.
But however one reads it, in linear order or by hopscotch, this is clearly the work of an old-fashioned cultural humanist who feels reverence, not for the past, as such, but for memory – and horror at the cruelty implicit in its willful destruction.
“The book is an institution of memory for consecration and permanence,” Báez writes, “and for that reason should be studied as a key element in society’s cultural patrimony.... There is no identity without memory. If we do not remember what we are, we don’t know what we are. Over the centuries, we’ve seen that when a group or nation attempts to subjugate another group or nation, the first thing they do is erase the traces of its memory in order to reconfigure its identity.... Only through the destruction of books can the murder of memory be accomplished.”
On its face, the challenge facing libraries is simple: declining funding. At a time when universities and colleges are pressed for funds, developing archival, book, journal, and electronic collections costs money. Libraries thus face the same challenge faced by other academic units -- the humanities, the social sciences, the classroom in general -- that rely upon rather than generate revenue.
The difference is that across the country deans of libraries are giving up the fight and changing their mission rather than fighting to save an important academic institution. Rather than make clear why we need academic libraries, the library’s leaders are seeking instead to become vague learning environments which, when boiled down to their essence, are nothing more than computer labs with sofas and coffee.
Declining funding is not the only problem, however. Equally important is the emergence of professional fields that seek to transform academic support institutions into ends in themselves. Across universities, positions once held by academics have been taken over by professions increasingly bound to autonomous fields such as student affairs, higher education administration, and library sciences. The result is that academic support units are beholden to those fields rather than the core purposes of the academy.
There is a paradox here. In each of these fields their defenders claim to be putting students first. In fact, they are undermining student learning by removing the emphasis on the classroom. The argument for transforming the library, for example, is that it will better promote student learning even if that means abandoning its core purpose.
The emergence of the field of library sciences combined with declining funding has created the perfect storm. Deans of libraries realize that unless they can claim to be the center of the university, a site of fundamental student learning, an end in itself, declining funding threatens their very existence. They draw on the field of library sciences to suggest that the library must be transformed. According to Richard E. Luce, director of university libraries at Emory University, the library exists not as an archive of human knowledge but “as a place [for students] to connect, collaborate, learn, and really synthesize all four of those roles together. How do you do that without bricks and mortar?”
But, of course, this is not true. The classroom is where students connect, collaborate, learn, and synthesize, under the guidance of faculty who are, at the end of the day, responsible for teaching. Students can continue the process over a cup of coffee in the local college coffee shop, in the common room of their dorms, or when they run into each other in the computer lab or library. The library exists as a means: to support the members of the classroom, the students and faculty.
What libraries need to do, and what faculty need to do, is to revive the academic library’s traditional mission.
The 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.
The 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.
No matter how much rhetoric librarians offer, if they abandon their core mission, they not only insult the dignity of the history of libraries but offer no reason for the library's continued existence. After all, the other services can be provided cheaper and better by student unions, residential halls, athletic centers, computer labs and coffee shops.
Johann Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University and author of Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (Harvard University Press).
Time to return some interloan books to the library. A couple are already one day overdue. I'm nervous as I slip them all into a slot at Circulation. A librarian appears, and seems to frown at me. "Oh-oh," I exclaim. "Me?" "No, not you," she reassures. "OK?" I reply, "but if I see a paddle." "Ah yes," she muses, regarding my books, "the dreaded interlibrary loan paddle."
I can't help it: I like librarians. Such incidents as this have been typical of a lifetime's experience with them. Dour? To me, they are usually witty. Reticent? Far more often straightforward. Narrow-minded? Some of the most liberal people I've known (if seldom very well) have been librarians.
One doesn't have to look very hard to see why stereotypes about them have arisen. Librarians are entrusted to care for books. That is, in a very real sense, they stand over and against the rest of us, who variously desire to remove the books from the library. What about return dates, active library cards, and numerous other rules, some apparently known only to librarians? We don't care.
Librarians have to care, and thus suffer a slippage whereby caring for books becomes being perceived by the public as guarding them. Thereby, a mean-spirited, censorious figure is born, figured forth as a crone. (In the popular imagination, librarians are always women.) Her hair is in a bun, and a scowl is on her face. We have done something wrong merely by entering the library. How dare we?
And, once inside, how dare we proceed to talk? Another slippage: the library into a shrine, wherein the god of Knowledge is to be venerated by all who enter, while Vestal Virgins preside. The librarian is a chaste figure, as befits both her devotion to the library and her dedication to its ceremonies. Ours is a selfish interest. Hers is pure. How do librarians cope with this comprehension of their situation? It depends upon individuals, I suppose. The first one I ever knew at all well was in fact a man. I never got round to asking him how he dealt with the fact that librarians are customarily women. He just seemed to stroll though his daily rounds, happy to pause if a question sparked his intellectual interests, which were "not inconsiderable."
In my experience, librarians like to use such phrases, or at least the academic ones do. (The ones who aren't academic either long to become so or else at least to work at a branch where questions from the public are likely to be more interesting than where books about basset hounds are located.) They are the sort of people best described as "bookish," only now turned inside out and suddenly stationed at the Information Desk.
Part of the reason I like librarians is that I like bookish people. They often don't know what to do with their bookishness. Librarians can earn a living by it, as long as local politics, faculty, or students don't become too oppressive. Teachers can earn a living by being bookish, too, although it's harder for them to hide in the stacks, which is where bookish people really want to be.
Hence, the surprise -- to me -- that so many librarians are so friendly: genuinely responsive to the most mundane questions, eager to help, willing to take time to initiate a search of some sort. Of course this is the public script on whose basis they are trained. Bookish or no, librarians exist to serve . . . the community, the public, the world. (Pick one.) Damned if this isn't pretty much what they try to do, in just about every library on every campus I've known.
In this, they are at times shockingly in contrast to comparable figures situated either above or below them. Faculty labor under no comparable imperative to be helpful -- to students, to visitors, to anybody; office doors can easily shut, or chairs swivel to a back wall. Staff often seem under some imperative to be unhelpful; the secretary at the dean's office or the clerk at Human Services can send just about anybody away steaming with anger at having been treated rudely. One simply does not hear such stories about librarians. The contrasts are striking. Perhaps they are explained by the difference between a library and all other buildings. None focuses a campus like a library. No building is comparably open to all and none so wholly represents -- no, literally possesses -- the very rationale of the college or university itself.
(I knew a student once who was trying to date the university's star gymnast. At one point he asked to meet her at the entrance to the library. "Where is the library?" she asked. "Imagine!" he exclaimed later to me, "a senior who doesn't even know where the library is! What has she been doing here for four years!" If I recall correctly, this killed the courtship.)
If behind each professor stands a grade or the next assignment, and behind each staff member a parking ticket, a transcript, or a tuition payment, behind each librarian stands one simple, profound thing: a book. It is more difficult, I believe, to relieve librarians of the mantle of learning, and they accept this, quite apart from individual styles in wearing the garment.
At the present time, however, it might be more clouded than ever before in the history of libraries to see the book, because it is rapidly being replaced by a computer. We may expect stereotypes of librarians to change accordingly; books need not be guarded once they turn into computer terminals, and shrines cannot retain their hushed atmosphere once they are regarded by their patrons as merely locations to do e-mail.
How these developments, in turn, result in changed self-perceptions for librarians, I cannot say. For example, it is easy to imagine that now many now "serve" under different sources of discontent. Where heretofore they may have been annoyed at irritating questions, are they now bored, either because they get few questions anymore or because all of them have to do with the internet (or DVD's, tapes, and audio books)?
Or do younger librarians regard the computer as older ones regard the book? The other day I was talking to a librarian who told me she was never professionally happier than at present, being able to initiate so many searches on the internet or in special databases for so many people, rather than just cataloguing, cleaning, ordering, or referring to books. How much does it matter that she works for the central branch of the city?
What will happen to my own beloved figure, whether or not she really is -- or was -- as bookish as I like to think? Already there has arisen a new generation of students who think of the library as more akin to a chat room or a cafeteria, and enter with cell phones at the ready, looking for tables to spread their sandwiches. Today's librarian has to extend her authority over such students.
To me, so far it's not a happy sight. It's one thing to joke about having a paddle. It's quite another to wield one, or wish you could. Of course it's another thing altogether to design PowerPoint presentations to incoming students about all the library offers. Is the venerable "visit to the library" now a more exciting occasion, at least for librarians, than it ever was in the past?
And so it goes. It might be more difficult at present to generalize about librarians than it is about faculty members, even including those librarians who would like to be faculty. The first poem that comes to mind when I think about libraries is Randall Jarrell's, "Children Selecting Books in a Library." It's as lovely upon rereading as I remember. But now I see one problem: there is no mention of librarians.
My own ideal library is inconceivable without them. Buns and scowls and all, I don't care. That we need our librarians is obvious. (And evolving.) That we must value our librarians is no less so. A college or university may in fact be no better than its own librarians. But in my experience this continues to be exactly the case, and I wish we would value more than we do both the human interaction as well as the ideal knowledge they represent.
Terry Caesar's last column was about department meetings.