U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Saving a Remnant (Guest Post from Fred Beuttler)

[Fred Beuttler is an S-USIH member and blog regular. He is currently Director of Carroll University’s General Education Development program, as well as an assistant professor in both General Education and Carroll’s History Department. – TL]
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This has been one of the most academically difficult few weeks of my entire career. A number of intellectual historians will probably have to face it in the near future. I’m not really sure if I’m participating in a purge, or plunging into a burning building to save some last remnants. So I don’t know whether to be deeply saddened, or incredibly grateful.

You see, I was asked last week by our university Librarian to review books that she wants to withdraw from the collection.

I teach at a small university with about 2800 students, most of whom are in the health sciences and business, with only a few in the humanities and social sciences. The reason the Librarian gave for the purge was that the books selected for elimination had not been checked out in thirty or more years, and that they needed to move them to make room. But it does not seem that that is the case that they will buy as many books to replace them – that the stacks are being culled to make room for electronic resources, or other non-textual uses.

Still, I agree that some books reluctantly need to go. If a book goes thirty, forty or even fifty years without being checked out, it may need to relinquish its place to something more relevant. A number of volumes were actually collections of primary source documents, most of which have now merged onto online formats, making them far easier for students to access. In these cases, the convenience of document collections compiled in the 1960s are really just like our internet accessibility now. One could easily imagine the editors of such physical books now just putting the docs and links on a website, and getting far more student use out of it. Same with multiple editions of works, often textbooks, which do not really need to be in a small university library.

But in front of me were over 300 linear feet of books, all “E’s” and “F’s”, and slated to be withdrawn. The Librarian assured me that the books designated to be purged would all go to good homes. First, they would be shipped to a used book warehouse, waiting in the bowels of Amazon, and if not sold in a certain amount of time, they would be sent overseas, as if on a missionary journey to stock some ill-equipped post-colonial library at a start-up university in the tropics.

I tried to convince the Librarian that we had space in our department, in some bookshelves in our conference room, but to no avail. They had to be either in the library itself, or they had to be exiled to the tropics. She did promise, rather too quickly, I thought, that they wouldn’t be “immediately” recycled.

I felt all the joy of intellectual life just drain out of my academic soul, as I gazed on what was intended to be destined to eventual destruction. The first glance landed on six volumes that I needed for a book manuscript I am working on. Then on to some classics in intellectual history. Until I arrived on campus six semesters ago, American intellectual history hadn’t been taught for maybe twenty or so years – such a course wasn’t even in the regular rotation. But normal courses, such as American Foreign Policy, or USA Since 1945, and Colonial America, were on my course load. And books in all of these areas were on the metaphorical pyre.

What thoughts come to mind, when Perry Miller’s Nature’s Nation and Errand Into the Wilderness are in the discard bin? Yes, one saves Becker and Beard, and the occasional volume of Harry Elmer Barnes, and of course Frederick Jackson Turner, which for some inexplicable reason a university in Wisconsin hadn’t had a student check out in decades. But what of all the others?

Lost to future students will be the experience of just staring at the library shelves, and seeing questions emerge from the many books present there.

Back in the 1950s, before there were cheap paperback versions of assigned texts, university libraries would purchase ten, twenty, or even thirty copies of a single book, for use in popular courses. It was sometimes easy to see, in perusing the stacks as a graduate student, that certain texts were foundational for a whole generation of students.

Because how does an intellectual historian really know how ideas are transmitted? How books are read and comprehended? Sales figures are weak measures, and are difficult to compare. Trying to discern what books are assigned by faculty, or read by students, are a significant indication of how ideas are disseminated. It’s kind of like how early television executives tried to figure out how many people were actually watching a TV show, before the Nielsen box. A crude measure that was actually used, was measuring municipal water pressure – flushes increased during commercials, and could be measured to the pint. Looking at a university stack and seeing thirty hardcover copies of, say The Meeting of East and West by F.S.C Northrop, meant that this was a key text for thousands of undergraduates.

And that was one of the first volumes I saw on the discard shelf, slated for withdrawal.

How could I ever assign an interested student a research topic on the alternatives to the Cold War in 1945-47, without knowing that Northrop’s book, and others like it, were readily available in our library? A Wikipedia generation does not wait for interlibrary loan.

More difficult was not knowing, from the Librarian, how many books I could save. It was not quite like a triage nurse, because I knew I couldn’t save even a third. The Librarian told me I was to turn a book on its side, if I wanted to save it. Books I really wanted to save, I should check out, making sure they weren’t purged. But it was understood that if I was too generous, I wouldn’t be asked again, to consult on the next round of changes. One English professor, an expert in Renaissance literature, didn’t even know such a culling of the library was going on. And here were books on Renaissance history on the block, but because they weren’t categorized as “literature,” he wasn’t consulted.

What to save? One racks one’s brain to remember book lists from graduate school, titles and authors outside one’s field. With only two or so Americanists in the department (some off on administrative duties), ranging over centuries, what can you do? Especially troubling was when I was confronted by a whole wall of ethnic study texts – five to ten volumes each on dozens of ethnic groups. Ethnic studies is not my field – so how was I to know which volumes to save?

In our capstone course, we have around ten or so seniors writing their research papers every year, on a wide variety of topics. That’s not a lot, I know, but before the purge, our library had some depth. Students could actually and physically go to the stacks, see the one book they were looking for, and also see the six or eight titles that also informed their topic.

It was especially painful in my own time period – 1930s-70s America. So many of works published then can become primary sources for countless student papers over the next generation, but students won’t be able to answer or even ask such questions. How could students ask about the meaning of “The Image,” if Boorstin is gone, or what “The Liberal Tradition in America” is, without Louis Hartz? What of Zorbaugh’s The Gold Coast and the Slum? Or even Myrdal’s An American Dilemma? Yes, they were all in the discard pile, as was all of Daniel Bell on the block. Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was there, which I saved of course, but what of the six or seven volumes next to it, all written within three years of Cruse, and on the same topic? How could one reconstruct such shelf-debates when the volumes aren’t next to each other? And how could I advise a student interested in researching such topics, when there are only two books left, where once, a professor fifty years early, thought to buy ten books, for future students to use? Looking at these shelves is almost like a time capsule, of former colleagues from generations ago, who gave us gifts of intellectual context, and we won’t be able to pass it on.

On the bottom of the third eight-foot shelf I looked at were six volumes on “Intergroup” studies, all published between 1946 and 1953, most in association with or funded by the National Conference on Christians and Jews. “Intergroup” is a word one that has fallen out of use; indeed, the very reason for its coinage has long been forgotten by most. The alternative, “Interfaith,” was a live option then, but this was ruled out by one of most prominent Jewish scholars in mid-century. “There is only one faith,” he said, “faith in G-d.” So interactions between religious communities were really “Intergroup” relations, not “Interfaith.” A subtle point, perhaps, but one filled with meaning, and worthy of exploration. The most recent history of the National Conference on Christians and Jews, for example, omitted discussion of these Intergroup studies, or even of the term, suggesting that there are still many areas open for research. But such questions would not even have been asked without those volumes sitting on those shelves, in a time capsule given our students by professors sixty or seventy years ago.

So what is the lesson I take away, as an intellectual historian? Back in graduate school, and looking at the academic job market, I figured that the prospect of landing a position at a university with a serious research library was rather slim, and that I should broaden my search. But that being the case, I realized that most of the books that I would need for my research and teaching I would probably need to buy. So one of my tasks as a historian was to build my own library. In my first job, that actually proved to be a wise choice, as my library, especially in intellectual history, was actually better than the little college I was teaching at. My next job was at a research university, where at least some in my family questioned the wisdom of my constantly growing collection. Most normal people, when looking at places to live, don’t usually have needs for 300-400 linear feet of bookshelves to consider. Realtors, and spouses, think the request odd. But now I’m here, at a small “university,” watching a purge of the work of thousands of intellects. Only a few works can be saved, because cost-pressures on libraries send more and more books away. So into the gap I’ll need to step in, with my own resources, to loan to students when the shelf-debates are unrecoverable. I’ve also learned how to build bookshelves.

So if you get one of my students in your graduate program, and they’re missing some key secondary sources in their undergraduate capstone paper, give them a hand and show them what a real library means, because the historiographical purge is taking place at countless liberal arts colleges. We who teach there feel like paraphrasing D. L. Moody, that we’ve been given a cart, and told to “save all you can.” It pains me to know that I’ve missed so many, that students in years to come will come to me with questions unforeseen, and not have the resources because of my lack of foresight. But I can still hope that some research university libraries will have the vision to preserve such a precious cultural and intellectual heritage.

I only have until March 10th to finish reviewing what is on the withdrawal shelves.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thank you — so much — for this beautifully written essay.

    “How could one reconstruct such shelf-debates when the volumes aren’t next to each other?”

    Indeed. The dematerialization of the codex, the collapsing of space and place implicit in the rendering of texts into “information,” the realignment of capital and material resources to make room for something other than the book — this doesn’t simply change how “knowledge” is found or organized or conveyed or preserved. This changes what knowledge is.

    Change can mean progress, but change can also mean loss. Thank you for reminding us of something very important that is being lost.

  2. This is well done, and an important lesson that we must all recognize in the academy. I’m lucky to be at a research institution, but you’re right that so many smaller schools are having to make difficult choices about what books to keep in their libraries.

    And I really think the point you made about losing books written during a time of crisis–for instance, the ones you mentioned written at the beginning of the Cold War–is an important one. We can cite secondary sources and landmark primary sources all day long. But, as intellectual historians, you need to dig deep and find other, lesser known books, written during an era to really get at the debates of the day.

  3. There is another alternative that you library may choose to pursue rather than shipping books overseas: The Internet Archive’s Open Library collects books for scanning : https://openlibrary.org/bookdrive

    Such a diversion will allow the Print Disabled to access these works (as the books will be digitized and be made available in the DAISY format) as well as ensure that future generations – both here and overseas – to have access to this necessary history once the material is in public domain.

    I would ask your library to consider such an option.

  4. A very good post. I think something similar, though perhaps not quite as bad, happens when libraries, for space or other reasons, no longer keep bound periodicals on the shelf. Yes, many journals and their back issues are now available online, but something is lost, I think, when one can no longer browse shelves of back issues.

    I found a couple of very pertinent articles that way when working on my diss. Could I have found them in the more usual, systematic ways? Sure, probably, but it so happens in these cases I just stumbled on them while idly browsing. (And it was exciting, as in “wow! I need this!,” exciting in a different way, I think, than it usually is when you find something in a focused search via computer databases, etc. Was it the tactility, the fact that I was holding something, in this case a bound volume of journal issues, in my hand? Or the fact that I could skim through the whole article right there standing in the library aisle, without sitting down at a screen? I’m not sure.)

  5. This is quite simply the most depressing thing — from a strictly academic perspective — that I have read in years. My own school, which is a Research I institution is emptying shelves faster than it takes to write about it. They aren’t being remaindered; they’re being sent to remote storage, where no one will ever run across them, because they aren’t on shelves one can run across. In their space are being erected computer labs, a remedial studies center, a coffee shop, more tables for students to hang out at, and so on. All worthy ventures, I’m sure, but ones that displace the books that make a library a library rather than a gathering spot. Periodicals that are available on-line are no longer subscribed to in print, even if there is a five year embargo on the on-line versions. As I say, truly depressing.

  6. The reach of the President’s and Provost’s offices extend much wider than to faculty offices and there is most likely a larger story here. The day of libraries being accepted as central to the life of a campus is no longer a given. Librarians are not gleefully flinging books around. Rising journal and print monograph costs, the competition for space on campus, and academic administration’s focus on ROI drive many decisions. I would encourage each of you reading and commenting to share Fred Beuttler’s blog post with your University Librarian and Provost.

    Academic libraries are fighting tooth and nail each day to exist. It is hard not to long for great research libraries at all of our institutions when so many of us have experienced transformative moments within them. What stands out to me is this – 2800 students, a shrinking humanities department, books not checked out in over 30 years, and most-likely a budget-strapped library being asked to make hard choices.

    I empathize with the experience of having to choose which books to “off” knowing full well that one day they could play a part in a scholar or student stumbling upon new connections and discoveries. I have had to make those decisions too and it is not fun. While I also want to create environments that foster moments of serendipitous discovery (knowing how brilliant of an experience it can be), the pressure on academic libraries, in combination with the way students and faculty conduct research and use library spaces has changed.

    There is plenty of research being done on student and faculty research behavior that is worth taking a look at. For example, in 2007 librarians at the University of Rochester worked with anthropologists to study undergraduate student research behavior. Similar research is also being done by discipline and level of study.

    Do I want to rob students of the joyful research experiences many of us have had? Absolutely not. Do I think that we need to look beyond our romantic notions of what libraries are and can be? If we want to have libraries in our institutions, yes. Talk to your Provost. Talk to your University Librarian. Talk to your colleagues. Academic libraries need champions who will ask the questions I am reading here AND also help build libraries that will serve our students and scholars in an uncertain future. If you feel brave, set a few hours aside in your schedule and come into your library to work. It can be a lot of fun and eye-opening to see the way academic libraries are being used.

    I’m an academic librarian, having worked previously at a large research institution and now at a smaller undergraduate college. I manage research teams on large grants and work closely with teaching faculty on a number of projects. My perspective is shaped by my own professional training and by these relationships.

    In follow-up to a previous comment, there are very rarely 5 year embargo periods on e-journals outside of some of those indexed in JSTOR. Take a look at individual journal titles for more recent coverage and make friends with your facutly’s librarian.

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