Thursday, May 12, 2011

Another Death Knell of Civilization

My colleague Annabeth Headrick, professor of art history at the University of Denver, has reported that her university's library is moving 80% of its volumes to an off-site holding facility, to make room for an "Academic Commons", which will feature "more seating, group space, and technological capacity". This continues a trend in academic institutions away from traditional libraries and towards a more "digital" environment, as exemplified by James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing Academy, a Boston prep school, who a few years ago decided to do away with 100% of his school's library in favor of digital readers and e-books.

As an academic, I am truly horrified by these developments. As Headrick points out in the first article, one of the greatest things about libraries are the serendipitous finds one encounters by just going through the stacks. Some of the greatest books I've ever read I only found out about because I just happened to see them in the stacks. Furthermore, many of the books I thought I wanted to read I quickly realized were irrelevant to my research or interest based upon cursory examination in the stacks. To force students to make requests to have these books brought up hours or even days later is a body blow to academic research and learning. It is clear that those who are instituting these changes are not academics themselves and this highlights one of the ugliest sides of this new academic-institutions-as-businesses model, in which professional CEOs are brought in to head these universities and make them profitable. While universities can't function by losing money, they don't need to be run as Fortune 500 companies if their product, which is so hard to quantify, suffers in the process. The trouble is that since this product is so difficult to quantify it will take years, even decades, before the negative aspects of this trend in academia becomes truly apparent. And by then we will have regressed intellectually to a staggering degree.

The part that really gets my goat, though, is that the freed-up library space is going to be used for group study space. Having taught as a teaching assistant and professor now for the better part of a decade I have come to see a steady and continuous decline in the abilities and interest of students in their academic work, and I blame in no small part digital media and group study. The internet should provide students incredibly more opportunity to research and educate themselves but I have found that the vast amount of time students spend online is not in pursuit of educating themselves. I always include research papers in my courses and so many of these kids simply do not know how to research,  nor have much interest in critically evaluating what they read. Most of their time online appears to be spent on either facebook, youtube or on popular media gossip sites. They know all about the latest reality TV stars and their troubles with the law or with the bottle, but haven't a clue where India or Pakistan are located, or what language they speak in Brazil.

Since fewer and fewer professors assign research papers the students only go to the library for group study sessions. So, while the books get dusty, the edifying solitude of the library is now broken by kids loudly chatting about the latest antics of Snookie or who got kicked off of American Idol. This is the real problem with group study; while students consider this to be "study time" they actually spend little time at all on actual studying and most of it chatting with their friends, either in person or online. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published this year (2011) the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses and they document many of the problems of modern academia. Inefficient group study and students who cannot disconnect from the addictive online world for even a 50 minute class are in no small way contributing to the crisis in education the United States is facing. University administrators trying to "modernize" universities by tossing the books out of libraries and replacing them with more group study space and more technology isn't going to help a wit, mark my words. It is only going to further the problem.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent and thoughtful post, Stan, with which I couldn't agree more. (And many thanks also for the link to Annabeth's comments at “Insider Higher Ed”.) Like you and Annabeth, I suspect, it's not the creation of ‘Academic Commons’ that I deplore, but rather the idea that one must sacrifice open library collections in order to create them. This issue should not be framed in ‘either/or’ terms.

    By the way, you might be interested to know that Harvard's Widener Library sponsored meetings on a very similar issue in the early 1990s, to which various faculty were invited to consult and contribute (precisely the opportunity denied Annabeth and her colleagues at the University of Denver). The faculty later published their experiences and viewpoints in a special issue of the Harvard Library Bulletin titled “Widener Library: Voices from the Stacks” (Fall 1995, Vol. 6. No. 3). The articles are available online here:

    They make interesting reading, with several scholars making the same points about serendipitous discoveries whilst browsing library shelves that you and Annabeth do. See especially the articles by Richard F. Thomas and Jan Ziolkowksi.