Rancor has taken over the Illinois State University English Department listserv on account of the new dean of the library deciding to do a low-cost revamp of the inadequate and outdated library space by transferring up 40,000 (mostly history) to the Milner Library’s shadowy and not directly accessible storage space. The move will create more in-library study space for students at a time when the library needs a major overhaul but lacks the funds to do it.
Many ISU English professors feel this is a violation of shared governance of the university as well as an affront to these books as knowledge containers, as faculty and even department chairs had little input into the decision and little recourse in its correction (if that is what is needed). From what I understand, these volumes are not “going away” but will be accessible via librarians using Milner Library’s request system. So what we are talking about is a process change, as library patrons will not have the opportunity to stumble upon these volumes in the stacks but will instead have to browse for them online (the Milner library web access is not great, so I can see why this might upset folks, although a combination of Amazon.com, Milner, and iShare typically works for my searches).
The problem, in my estimation, is not really about the loss of precious books (and their archival purpose as housing the evolution of knowledge in a given field) in favor of more physical study space for students. The loss of access is not really a loss of access but a change in process. While the removed books may not be browsed in the brick-and-mortar library, they may be browsed at home from a remote location, ordered, and picked up without even venturing into the stacks. I see this as an extension of the debate about the fundamental purpose of a library.
Libraries have evolved to serve a number of purposes, but the library is rooted in an archival function. To the best of my knowledge, the changes to Milner Library are not abandoning that function, simply acknowledging that library patrons are in the midst of a technological shift where a wired space with access to digital resources is of equal importance to the physical object of the book.
Furthermore, addressing the issue of shared governance of the university, or lack thereof in this case, the relationship of the library to the colleges and departments of a university is flawed by design. Where colleges are archipelagos of related fields and departments themselves are islands, the library becomes a kind of colonial mainland with which the archipelagos and islands must have a strained relationship because they do not have control over the essential tools that provide for their day-to-day work. This essential division calls attention to the tension between disciplinary territory and interdisciplinary needs.
Most scholars realize early on they cannot function solely on the scholarship within a given discipline or even within an array of related disciplines. Eventually, even members of the English department seek out philosophy, history, sociology, gender studies, and maybe even James Gleick’s Chaos, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, or Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu-Li Masters from the science stacks (How I love those nontechnical science tomes!). If departments could go it alone could, then wouldn’t it make more sense to have a particular discipline house and govern its own library? If the university is going to remain a collection of loosely confederated islands of knowledge, then why should the library serve all of them as a collective entity?
The tension ISU is experiencing regarding Milner Library is the equivalent of when a large, colonizing body makes decisions that affect its colonies, throwing certain colonies into turmoil while affecting others less. Personally, I am for the dissolution of the archipelago-like setup of college and departments in favor of a holistic university centered around a universal focal point of academic pursuit like creativity (which I have written about at length in an unpublished article called “Creativity and the Holistic University” or something), but that is for another post, another time.