Students’ nearly three-month-long University of California, Berkeley, anthropology library occupation ended in some concessions from the university, despite dwindling protester numbers and a lack of faculty support.
In February, citing shrinking budgets, the university announced it would close the George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library by the end of this year, merging its collections and staff into the Main (Gardner) Stacks. Two other libraries, Mathematics Statistics and Physics-Astronomy, would merge with other libraries by later in 2024 and 2025 as part of the reorganization.
But, starting in late April, students and some faculty members occupied the anthropology library. They slept overnight, making headlines in The New York Times and elsewhere.
On July 15, the Anthropology Library Occupation announced on Instagram it had “won an open public UC Berkeley Anthropology Library.”
“The strength of our occupation forced the university to negotiate directly with us, rather than leaving the library as an issue for the department to resolve,” the group’s statement said. “Our occupation has shown that we do not need to accept administrative ‘final decisions’ or ‘budget cuts’—we know that these are choices, and that these choices can be made to represent the will of the people.”
But the surviving library, which people won’t be able to check out books from, won’t be quite the same. The university and department are calling it a “reading room,” not a library.
According to a document provided by occupier Aidan Kelley, on June 20, Raka Ray, dean of the Division of Social Sciences, wrote that the Anthropology Department would be allowed “to retain duplicate and non-library materials, estimated at about 20,000 books at present or approximately 40 percent of the current collection.”
Ray also wrote that the department would receive, and match, “$45,000 in one-time transitional funds” and would have “creative and intellectual control of the future of the library and space.” Ray’s letter referenced “implementing the plan proposed by the Anthropology Department.”
On June 21, Sabrina Agarwal, the new Anthropology Department chair, referenced Ray’s offer and asked for the occupation to end by July 18.
“I attach here a letter from Dean Ray that outlines the campus’s proposal,” Agarwal wrote. “This is final; there is no continued negotiation with the administration or dean, and the campus central administration has made its final decisions. These actualities include concessions the department had no reason to expect when the closure of the library was originally proposed.”
“The value of a continued circulating anthropology library as articulated by the occupation collective was not prioritized by the campus, and this has been disheartening,” Agarwal wrote. “However, the significance of the space and the potential to build something that resonates with the priorities and spirit of the community has been recognized by the campus.”
She wrote that the anthropology faculty “have shared their firm belief that it is no longer in our best interest to continue the occupation and have directly asked for an end to the occupation. This is not a tactic to divide our community, it is a fact, and all community members should be aware that nearly all the faculty have called for an end.” She added, “The continued occupation is now harmful to our community. The majority of faculty, nearly all who originally supported it, both the former and current chair, do not support the continued occupation.”
“We are poised to begin the academic year with a community that is mired in deep dissatisfaction and unhappiness,” she wrote. “This distress is being felt by your peers, colleagues, teachers, mentors, and the staff that work with and for you, many of whom are now not able to work in person. This now has a clear negative impact on our community’s well-being and our collective and individual success. We cannot begin to seize the opportunity to envision the use of the space and its use as a reading room/department library until the occupation ends.”
On July 4, the protesters promised to end the occupation if the university were to staff the library with a student employee, keep it publicly open for at least 20 hours per week on average in each semester, allow users to request and receive at the library noncirculating books from other libraries, and fund 50 community members to receive UC library cards. The university said those cards usually cost $100 a year.
Agarwal accepted the terms.
In an email Monday, a university spokeswoman wrote that the books in the space will be those unneeded for circulation, “for example because there is already another copy in the central or UC system, or no longer wanted by central library.”
“The rest of the books will return to the central system, most back in the campus central library,” the spokeswoman wrote. “Some that are called or taken out very infrequently will go to the off-site center and can be requested within a day or so … A portion of the collection will be withdrawn; by agreement, those materials are being offered to the Department of Anthropology for them to make available as the core of the noncirculating collection in the reading room they will be creating and overseeing in the location of the former Anthropology Library.”
Regarding why the protest ended, Kelley—a math graduate student who said he learned about the protest from a friend from the graduate workers’ union—said, “Many of us were very, very tired. I think the occupation had taken a lot from us. But, also, [Agarwal] really did accept, like, everything we proposed.”
He and another occupier—Anthony Zavala, a rising senior undergraduate sociology major—both said there were 20 or more students sleeping at the library at the start, but numbers had dwindled by the end. Sometimes there were just a handful, or just two.
And faculty support also dissipated.
“It was almost like they may be worried their jobs may be in trouble or something like that,” Kelley said. “That’s just kind of what it felt like.”
“Some number of faculty withdrew their support,” said Grace McGee, an undergraduate society and environment major and another occupier. But she added that “we had other faculty coming in and like showing support, offering to donate, offering to help.”
“Eighty-five days is a really long time,” McGee said, “so I think even the fact that it lasted that long was quite significant to a lot of people.”
Zavala said protesters, including himself, sometimes slept on the floor, but they “would just take, like, sleeping pills to sleep through the night.”
He said saving the library was important to him as a Mexican American. He said books like the ones it houses helped him connect better with his Mexican grandmother and his mother, who faced discrimination in a very white California neighborhood.
“This is stuff that they really didn’t, like, share with me growing up,” he said. “So I had to read it in a book.”
“I would definitely call it a victory,” Zavala said.
Agarwal said, “We’re never going to get back that library that’s closed, as a circulating library.” But she said this is “still a big win for us and for the department.”
As for the university, its spokeswoman said it didn’t change course.
“But in response to student protests, and the department’s new ideas, the campus made some concessions,” the spokeswoman wrote in her email. “The main impact of the protest was that it slowed down the process of switching over from the circulating library to this new space. Undoubtedly the protest also raised awareness of the importance of libraries.”