Book ‘Em!

Today’s article in Slate is all about the new trend in college libraries of removing the biblia and turning them into Jamba Juices. The article was inspired by a group of activists from Colby College, who are protesting their administration’s decision to sack the stacks in favor of–big surprise–opulent offices for, you guessed it, administrators. So fitting.

Anyway, this was an interesting article to write, because I had to come up with an argument to keep books that would be unassailable even to the most virulent anti-print crowd. Anything about the actual research value of books was going to be shot down by people who pointed out that eventually, digitized books will be as good as the real thing, for all intents and purposes. Anything about browsing the stacks was going to be shot down by people who pointed out that many books happened upon whilst browsing are probably outdated and won’t help research. Any argument about the historical importance of interacting with print was going to be shot down by people who argued that what I’m thus basically advocating is a “book museum.” It was going to be tough going, until I realized that no matter what, books do have a place in the library. You can have every other important thing in a library–study space, computers, a librarian–and get most, if not all, of the materials you need to research and study. But without the books, you will not feel like studying. Really, you won’t. So that’s my argument.

While I was writing the piece, I reached out to several librarians I know, both to get links and to test out my arguments. They didn’t necessarily agree, but they gave me their blessing anyway. It hasn’t made much of a difference, however–plenty are still really pissed, for one reason or another. You know, the usual–my argument wasn’t 1000% exactly what they would say, ergo I’m an idiot. However, I’m still glad I exercised due diligence this time. The last time I wrote about a field I don’t now anything about was the Essay Essay, which, because I didn’t talk to anyone in comp/rhet during writing, ignited such a shit-storm that to this day many of the comp/rhet celebrities in the US (contradiction in terms, I realize) hate my fucking guts.

Lately I’ve been trying to be less confrontational and more compassionate. When someone disagrees with me, either politely or vehemently, I am really trying my goddamndest to see things from their perspective, to value their feelings as much as my own, to understand that no matter how “right” I feel I am, it’s still only a feeling, and not an unassailable fact.

I am a weird person, in that I am equal parts passionately opinionated and unashamedly beta (that is, I spend a lot of my time cowering in fear about being criticized, and internalizing others’ criticisms because I already at least halfway believe them to be true.) So in order to reconcile this contradiction called my existence, I am doing WAY more compassionate reflection and way less fighting. For those of you entertained by my fighting, I guess I’m “sorry”? Actually, I’m really sorry, please forgive me, please don’t hate me, please be nice to me, please.

Double-anyway, all this is to say that in writing this piece, I really did do my level best to do right by librarians, but in the end, I also had to make an argument that could even begin to resonate with the people who are in charge of obliterating college libraries in the first place.

11 thoughts on “Book ‘Em!

  1. There is NOTHING, NOTHING, that will broaden your horizons, keep you curious and CHALLENGE you more than browsing through book stacks, whether at a university library or a book store.

    Just in the last year I am impressed at the amount of literature I have come across that just “grabbed” me in ways that a recommendation from Big Humungous Retailer (BHR) cannot do (All that recommendations from BHR do is reinforce your thinking, making you an intellectually staid and smug human being–oh, wait, did I just describe the average tenured academic?).

    Thank you for this, Rebecca. I believe in physical books, in libraries, in that exciting smell of old and new publications gathered together). I pay more for new books at indie bookstores (but get killer deals as well on used books) but I view that as my civic responsibility. BHR already controls too much of our world. Digital? Go Kobo. I REFUSE to give my book money to a corporation that decides what I can and can’t read and that blocks me from buying from someone else (and that has, in the past, simply deleted digital books from your account with no explanation). If that doesn’t send chills down your spine…it should.

    And bottom line, again–my best, most challenging and rewarding reading of the last year has come from discoveries made while browsing book stacks in both libraries and book stores. (Let me just add a caveat–I understand that certain academic books are just impossible to buy at indie stores or that price is just astronomical; in that case, I say get Amazon. Or move your butt an extra .3 miles to pick up the volume from the interlibrary loan desk–you get to have it for a year. EVERY.OTHER. BOOK.NEED. can and SHOULD be fulfilled by shopping and ordering at indie stores and/or asking for it through ILL if you happen to be lucky enough to have lending privileges ).

    It is politically dangerous to have HUMUNGOUS RETAILER control our entire access to information. And scholars should be particularly resistant to this state of affairs. Period.


  2. All the things you say so clearly articulate my feels so I appreciate your gallant effort to be more compassionate towards your haters (not to be confused with detractors who are those who respectfully disagree with your stances and are willing to engage in constructive debate in order for both sides to further their understanding), but as for the haters, I will say it, FUCK ‘EM, haters gonna hate.


      • I hear you about compassion to “haters” but mostly, in fact, bottom line, because it helps toward self preservation. That said, I have appreciated the public embarrassment you have dealt people in power who provoked you–humiliation to those in POWER who publicly (or in coward complicity, frankly, which is the academic modus operandi) is necessary from time to time. Being humiliated can be transformative, if a person in power is actually willing to see the light.

        For instance, the pointing out of the TR’s CV back in December important (and I know Rebecca expressed regret about having done so–but I think it was the most constructive, decisive piece of evidence that went to the heart of the whole discussion). TR might have been embarrassed, but it applied not just to her but a WHOLE generation of scholars–two of my advisers, one a bag of s•it, the other a fine human being (but incompetent adviser) did not EVER publish a monograph. EVER. They are both retired from a “presitigious” (kiss my ass) R1 institution. Ah….the golden years…with NO monographs. Yet all these folks (people, I’m talking structurally here, I know there are exceptions) like TR, are incompetent and arrogant about the realities that doctoral students face.

        One can use a moment of humiliation for transformation. I think we can all relate to that individually and, as such, so much more for the purposes of a structural conversation.


      • I do not believe I would lash out at someone like Claire in the same was as I did then, but you never know. I hope the next time something like that happens I rise above it.


  3. You did rise above it. And, in the process, rendered a tremendous reality check to an important, decision making (and often smug) stratum of the academic establishment. A classic delivery of: what’s in your wallet?

    You continue to do so–recently with the student challenging you about not being Marxist enough/not understanding exploitation ….only to have you point out that SHE did not get paid for her work. Another sweeping stroke of genius. Anyhow, Rebecca, do not try to disarm me 🙂 because I think you’re the best thing that happened to academics (and postac’s) since sliced bread….!


  4. “Anything about browsing the stacks was going to be shot down by people who pointed out that many books happened upon whilst browsing are probably outdated and won’t help research.”

    Maybe, but those people are stupid. My entire research thrust was defined by an old, forgotten tome happened upon while browsing stacks. As near as I can tell, it is the only remaining copy of this bizarre little policy document from 1977. And while it is certainly outdated, it has also generated years worth of research questions, articles, and a manuscript under revision on a topic of immediate and contemporary interest.

    So, yeah, those people are stupid.


  5. The three groups most responsible for exploiting the fall of the humanities to carve out their careers (as admin lite): (1) comp/rhet people (aka management –dare to deny this comp t-t profs who receive a “course release” to supervise adjuncts who actually teach comp), (2) digital humanities scholars (look up their actual dissertations–funny how did writing a dissertation on gender and race in X’s poetry allow you to morph into a digital expert?: just mix together an on-line teaching gig and a postdoc at GeorgiaTech and boom a PhD ready to capitalize on the latest trend is born) and (3) recent MLS grads (again check out how many college librarians are actually ABD humanities failures) only too ready too get rid of stacks so they can have a big office for themselves so they can call Apple to place more iPad orders. Schuman, your Slate articles have all the pieces. Just fit them together.


  6. The University of Saskatchewan is imposing a major cost-cutting program that is stupidly called ‘TransformUS’. One of the measures is to transform many books right out of the library building. In supporting the measure, the provost was quoted in a local paper as saying that when you look at the students in the library, “what they have in front of them are laptop computers, not books,” (quoting from “TransformUS plan to cut $25.3M from University of Saskatchewan spending”, The Star Phoenix, April 30, 2014).


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