Alexandria’s library was lost to terrorism . . . now there’s no need

College/university libraries are the next to self-destruct.

I mourned a couple of years ago when I had occasion to drop in at our town library and discovered that in place of our beautiful oak card catalog *with a few terminals/PCs in carrels* and a large space for browsing “New Fiction” and “Humor” and children’s books (with sofas and chairs scattered near the windows, we now had long CD-store-style troughs holding audiobooks (ha), CDs, DVDs, and other media stuff. There isn’t a book on the first floor AT ALL. All that space is now devoted to media rentables and to PCs connected to the ‘net as research stations and/or terminals for searching the virtual card catalog. You can request books from storage or you can plod up to the second floor, where some books are still kept. Most people see this as progress.

I keened for the old three-inch-thick carved wooden double doors with the signs of the Zodiac chiseled in, the smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap, the shelves and shelves forming a maze of old books that are now out of print and probably won’t come back into print. Now, twice a year, they “clean out” books that haven’t been checked out “in a couple of years” by having a brown-bag sale of books stuffed into old grocery sacks. Last year my neighbor picked up six Harvard Classics (!! Out of a set!!) and several classic novels and collections of essays. What did she want them for? She’s in real estate staging, and she was going to glue them together by cover color (!!!) and position them around on the house’s built-in shelves to look lived-in. *sob*

It gets worse.

Stanford University’s new engineering library opened on Monday. It’s a shiny new 6,000 SF spot in the new School of Engineering Center (which is, I assume, a big building full of classrooms and such). “It’s easier and more convenient for students now because it’s close to where they are,” said the head librarian. This, she said, justified reducing from 16,000 square feet of space in the old engineering library to today’s 6,000. It isn’t completely “bookless,” as the headlines trumpeted, for it does combine the holdings of the engineering, physics, and computer science libraries into a base of 15,000 books.

What are they doing with the 96,000 books, journals, and conference proceedings from the old engineering library? For now, they’re being moved off-site for storage. Tomorrow, who knows? Maybe a bonfire if it gets cold. Maybe a recycling plant.

The new library has a self-checkout system and four Kindles that can be borrowed. “We try to stay a step ahead,” said the “librarian.” (At least for now, she still has a job.) They have an “electronic reference desk” that allows students to contact librarians by e-mail, chat, telephone, or text message. This replaces the old always-available reference librarian and help desk.

Cornell University is dismantling the engineering school’s physical library as well, “to boost funding for online collections and increase the study space available to students,” according to staff. Sometime next year a “team” *rah rah* will decide what will happen to the space that now houses the library’s books. Surely it can be put to better use than stacking those dusty tomes for nerds to sit around and read! The medical library at Johns Hopkins will no longer be in one building, because they’re moving to “a model that embeds library staff in academic departments.” By the end of next summer, the library staff plans to have moved ALL of its 180,000 items offsite, where it can slowly be forgotten or eliminated (all right, I am editing a bit on that part.) The current literature in these disciplines turns up in journals, after all, and most journals are available online. (The university will pay the fee, presumably, and students can search the journals electronically.) There will be no copies of books and journals left lying around for students to “run across” and accidentally get interested in something that they weren’t looking specifically for. (This is how one of my advisers in college had found his specialty and a thesis topic–running across an article about number theory. Dr. Ginsberg now teaches on the topic.)

No one knows yet what this really means.

Yes, we do. It means that everyone’s going to have to trust what they read online, even though it’s made clear daily that online texts can be edited and/or deleted (and/or just plain lost with no reliable backup) such that students and scholars (not the same animal) could be deluded about the truth in a subject. History will probably be edited (and it has already started, I’m sure) just as it was in Orwell’s 1984. (He just got the dates wrong.) You laugh now, but think about this: right here on my journal, you can read through the entries and think that’s all there is to it (and be thankful), but what if I had locked entries? Many journalers have locked entries, and many websites have password-protected areas. There could arise an elite with access to certain information that isn’t “free” to everyone.

In fact that is the case now to some extent, because you have to pay for access to some journal archives NOW and you have to register to see the NYT articles that are more than a day old, but it isn’t as total as it will be in the future when there’s no paper reference, no microfiche, no tape archive that is in a library somewhere. Now there are still some original copies of various magazines. In the future, perhaps there will be nothing but digitized copies. People may think they prefer that and that it’s better and eternal, but there can be drawbacks that might not be obvious to the techlovers. If you want to know the “Truth” of some event, what you do (at least what I would do) is start by browsing the publicly available sources and summaries, but then you go to the primary sources. You may read in primary source #1 that the truth is X, in source #2 that of course the truth is Y, and in source #3 that there has been a cover-up and the truth is not known and can’t be determined. You end up analyzing what you can find out and drawing conclusions based on all the primary sources, and even then you don’t have The Final Truth. Well . . . in this projected future, there won’t be reliable primary sources. Maybe there’ll be one original document that was scanned in, but maybe it isn’t available to everyone. No prob–we have a transcript. Hmm, is that transcript exact? Or has someone put in a political spin or omitted a few important phrases? Perhaps some of the primary source documents have been lost, or were typed in by people who made typos and got dates and numbers mixed up, or someone Photoshopped the pictures . . . you get the picture?

“You Luddite,” everyone shouts, “you conspiracy theorist weirdo! You’re crazy. We don’t need to see all that dusty old stuff. We don’t need to think it through for ourselves when we can get the summary by copying it off Wiki-dickie or out of another online resource. Who cares about the past, or science, or that stuff anyway? We want to know about the latest pop singer and the latest reality show. Maybe a recipe or two now and then. Technology in higher education is The Answer!”

Okay. Go ahead. But you’ll be sorry. Maybe not today, or in a few years. But eventually, and for the rest of eternity. Because we’re going down a path that will allow the few elite access to information that is now free. Sure, they’ll let you have Kindles and there’ll be a ‘net with a lot of stuff on it, but will it be the whole truth? Will it be science and history, or will it be what they want the masses to believe and just enough that they want you to know?

I was the first to say that I wanted an encyclopedia on disk. I typed in two novels for the original Project Gutenberg back in the 1980s when I ran an Apple ][-based BBS for writers and D&D players. I carried backups of my manuscripts on floppy disks in my purse when most people had no idea what they were or why they would want to have info online.

But I didn’t want the techno experience to replace EVERYthing.

I used to spend entire afternoons sitting in a chair near the picture window of the town library sifting through several volumes to see what angle I would take for a particular research paper. I’d narrow it down at first, but then I’d go back to the shelf and pick out volumes that were shelved nearby my topic. It was always good to get some sidelights on the topic. I’d also find books that just mentioned my topic, and from those books I would be led to others. Eventually I’d narrow down the topic enough that I’d settle on three or four books plus a few index cards with info from the other, more peripheral books. I often would have one or two old magazines, as well, and I’d photocopy the articles that were pertinent (at fifty cents a page!) Our library had bound copies of LIFE, LOOK, COLLIER’S, ST. NICHOLAS MAGAZINE, and many other older magazines going back for years. You could find columns written by people living through the war you were studying, or the Depression, or whatever . . . these “takes” on the subject were not found elsewhere and were often the source of much insight. (We even had older issues on microfiche, which wasn’t easily Photoshoppable or editable.)

That was a lot of work. Sure! It isn’t as easy as doing a couple of online searches for the phrase or words that you think will turn up stuff on your topic and then copying out passages that will make a good paper. But perhaps it is a bit more comprehensive. It’s how I discovered Robert Benchley and James Thurber and Don Marquis (“Archy and Mehitabel”), in the pages of those old magazines.

I’m not saying that tomorrow they’ll be able to erase WWII or the Holocaust or the horrors of the American Civil War or whatnot. But someday, after the Powers That Be have gotten hold of a new generation while they’re young and before they’ve talked much to the older folks about these past events and attitudes, they WILL be able to. And eventually the new version of history will take root, and that will be that.

In truth, some of this has happened already. Who will really ever know the whole story about things that happened to the ancients? But we have a lot of information that we’ve deduced as well as what little of their text remains, and for now it’s all free to anyone who wants to browse a little in a good library. (And much of it is out on the ‘net for free, and you can compare sources to some extent.) We’re still not quite at the point I describe.

But with universities rushing to “free up all that wasted space” and invest all their money in technology, we may soon be much closer than we think. You might argue that for now it’s only the engineering and math stuff that’s getting offloaded, and that’s not the kind of thing that governments generally want to erase or get rid of. They don’t need to hide the quadratic formula or Fermat’s last theorem (yet). But . . . let’s not be hasty to set a precedent.

Or perhaps we should go full speed ahead. Know where they REALLY have a lot of wasted space? Football stadiums! Locker rooms and fields not only smell bad and get dirty with all those discarded aluminum cans, but they’re also expensive to build and maintain overall. We could take a cue from gamers and use virtual spaces, where fans could “attend” games online. Tennis, track, and horseshoes are next!

Ha! More likely, they’ll get rid of classrooms next (going all Web-based and e-mail based or video-based) and professors’ office hours and in-person seminars and the student union and lounge. Everything can be virtual except football games and keg parties! This should work great, as most colleges have already become mostly “places to party down” instead of citadels of higher learning. Just look at the lists of “best party schools” that come out every year in the spring when students are supposed to be choosing colleges. Drinking and having sex without parental supervision (but on Dad’s dollar) seem to be the major draws of most schools, if you trust the media’s portrayals. Bah!

/exaggeration for effect

Fine, fine. But don’t carp about how I keep a fairly large print reference library. And I won’t carp about how you don’t have even one brochure on paper in your house.


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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