Saturday, November 07, 2009

Dean of Libraries hates books, libraries; views on espresso machines, gym equipment unknown

Via The Little Professor, who has an elegant post about why this is a totally stupid perhaps an ill-advised idea:
“Let’s face it: the library, as a place, is dead,” said Suzanne E. Thorin, dean of libraries at Syracuse University. “Kaput. Finito. And we need to move on to a new concept of what the academic library is.”
And there's more:
Despite the objections of “a minority of very loud faculty members,” Thorin said, the days of wandering through the stacks are over. “People,” she told the audience, of whom many were librarians, “the world has changed, and so have your students, and so have your faculty!”
She's totally drunk the "digital native" Kool-Aid, hasn't she? Yeah, those pesky faculty members, with all their prattling on about "knowledge" and "humanities." If we could get rid of them, maybe we could afford a new espresso machine and maybe even some treadmills!

And here's something from Richard Luce: "“To interact with one another — to talk, to collaborate, to think, to communicate, to be with one another,” he said. “Isn’t that what we do in our best libraries?”" If you don't have any content to the information you're exchanging, or any permanence, you're transmitting chat. Libraries as Twitter? (Sorry, Twitter, but although I've seen "come see what I've done" tweets a lot, I haven't seen deep thoughts on there. It's more an alerting service for thoughts written elsewhere than a mode for transmitting ideas.)

I had a long argument one time in my one and only library science course (as an undergrad). I remember it because I was a terminally quiet student in this class, the kind everyone hates. "What's the function of the library?" the professor asked. My answer was vaguely Arnoldian--something about keeping books that people couldn't afford to buy, classics, keeping knowledge alive, best that has been thought and said. Nope! The purpose of the library is to serve the people, I was told. If they want 30 copies of Dan Brown, then that's what you buy, and if you have to chuck Dickens to do it, well, Dickens is toast.

Miriam Burstein (Little Professor) calls this a thought experiment. I'd call it a thoughtless one.

[Edited so I sound more rational on this topic; I could hardly be less so.]


Ink said...

I'm speechless. And that takes a lot.

Mumfacolyte said...

It really is terrible. Now is a great time to buy ex-library editions, if you can afford them (in my circumstances a big if). At, if you can pay the price, you may get what you need in a week's time (or better); through the library - and I refer here to a public library, but I see the schools are changing too - it may take months, even for an established classic, and then it has to be returned right away because it is the single copy serving a huge system and somebody else wants it.

Your answer to the library prof is right on target; unfortunately there seems to be only a slim minority of us that thinks that way today...

undine said...

Ink, I'd say I was speechless, too, but I'm obviously driven to rant about it.

Mumfacolyte, welcome! I hadn't even thought about this in terms of scarcity of volumes until I went over and read your post about it, but you're absolutely right. The fact that such a demand exists would seem to put paid to the notion that "no one" wants books any more, but I guess that goes against the grain of library theory these days.

stevenb said...

When librarians do these types of debates each agrees to take a viewpoint at one end of the spectrum - as radical as that might be. The point is to polarize the issues so we can better understand the challenges we face and how to deal with it. I'm quite sure Thorin isn't a book hater and is quite determined to keep her library building intact. Your comments help add to the debate so we know where faculty stand, but keep in mind the reality is that both Thorin and Luce are likely somewhere in the middle on the "library vs no library" or "print vs all digital" debate.

undine said...

stevenb, thanks for your message. Of course Thorin can't really be a book-hater (that was my rhetorical stance, as the debate position was hers), and it's good to know that she's committed to keeping her library intact.

It clearly does bother a lot of faculty members, however, to hear the whole idea of library stacks (and being able to visit them) being dismissed so casually, and, might I say, with more than a touch of contempt for those who value the process. Thorin seems to think we (faculty) are uninformed about the wonders of the digital world. We're not. We just don't believe in following blindly a "let's do what the masses want" model for libraries. The American public wants reality shows, too. That doesn't mean that they're a good idea.

Rufus said...

But wouldn't you want librarians who are not somewhere in the middle on this issue? Even given that this is a thought experiment, I can't listen to librarians talk about how we need to stop thinking of libraries as places with books without imagining a priest saying, "We need to really stop thinking of the church as a place where people come to hear about the scriptures and pray. Because, gosh, the new generation (digital natives- i.e. internet addicts) really just wants another place to hang around and dick around on their laptops."

But, of course, something like that wouldn't happen (well, it sort of already does) without upsetting the very people (like us, I'd imagine) who look to figures of cultural authority for guidance, and not simply for customer service

undine said...

Rufus, I like your analogy, and I think it's pretty close to how we (academics) think of libraries. On the other hand, although we see them as priests with a sacred mission, librarians see themselves more as counter people or maybe managers at McDonald's: their funding depends on getting feet in the door and showing the powers-that-be that their services are being used. They're judged on circulation numbers, patron numbers, queries answered, and so on. If that's the case (and I think it is), I can see why they'd want to go to a least common denominator of customer service.

I don't like it, but I can see why they'd do it.