For those of us who have been seduced by knowledge, the university can be a magical place in which to lose oneself for years. Theoretically, the university is a place where one can speak on topics to degrees that are not necessarily appropriate in the “real world.” There was a time when the library stood at the center of the university and that university was known for its library. Sadly, times have changed.
Libraries are no longer being funded the way in which they were in the past. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most accurate one is that universities do not make money from their libraries. Universities make money through dorms and dinning centers. Actual tuition covers very little in a comparative sense. It is not my intention to be critical of the current fiscal practices of universities across the country, although I hope that my frustration is apparent. The purpose of this post is really a lament for the university library.
Springing up over campuses all across the country are shinning new dinning halls and student centers. These, as any college or university president will tell his or her board of trustees, are the big-ticket items that attract potential students. On campus tour visitors rarely ask to see the library. Instead, they ask what the food is like and how big the dorm rooms are. Does the dinning hall have enough variety? Is there a café where we can study? Are the baseball, soccer, football, and softball fields new? If a college or university president is really lucky, he or she will secure a donor who will finance an arts center, and a number of visitors may ask about that. But, I am willing to bet that less than one percent of visitors to college and university campuses ask how big a university’s library collection is. This, ladies and gentlemen, is perhaps the biggest indicator of where higher education is headed. As a society we say that we care about education and learning, but the reality is that we don’t. Not really. Instead, we are looking for a second home for ourselves (if we are potential students), or our children (if we are parents). Beyond that, we are interested in what a university education can get us once we graduate.
The great debate today seems to hover around the digital and e-book debate. That is, with the increasing pressure to move toward a more digital archive, should libraries put more of their precious resources into digital sources of information? The answer to that is not an easy one to come to. There are sound arguments for putting resources into e-books and the digital archive. For example, there is really no need to have the physical texts of encyclopedias anymore. Also, numerous textbooks come out with a new edition every year, so it would make much more sense to switch to digital e-books for texts like that. Yet, the e-book format is still in its infancy and is likely to change and become obsolete once a new, improved delivery system is invented. What will remain and not become obsolete is the physical book. As Umberto Eco reminds us: “The book is like the spoon: once invented, it cannot be bettered.” For those of us who have spent many years doing research, we know that the book we really need is the next one down from the one we went looking for. A completely digital archive will eliminate this process of discovery and therefore lessen the impact research has on learning.
Much thought goes into the physical presence of a new building on campus. True, that new building will add a certain dimension to the already established personality of the campus, or it may completely contradict and/or change that personality. One thing is for certain, and I do not believe that enough university presidents or members of boards of trustees realize this: a library is not the physical building in which the books are housed; a library is a university’s collection (s) of books. That said, I would argue that those taking tours of college campuses this spring ask to see the library first. The dinning hall really doesn’t matter much at the end of the day.
I firmly believe that communities are only as strong as their schools and libraries. Why do we not feel the same about our universities? Why are we not building new libraries?