The Fate of the Books
all these books?" And invariably he answers, "No, but I have used them all."
- Part Two
What Litwack means to emphasize is that while he loves books for
how they smell and how they look, he mostly loves them for what they say.
His library is a working library, and he wishes that the UC Berkeley
collection served his needs half so well. For years he has sent the
students in his American history survey course to the main library to do
the research for an eight- to ten-page paper. He wants his students to get
their hands dirty from the very beginning, to develop a facility with
original sources: books, documents, and manuscripts. To that end he has
even encouraged them to use the special collections at the Bancroft
Library, a move that has not always endeared him to a staff accustomed to
dealing with a select group of professors and visiting scholars.
Litwack sees the assignment as a kind of indoctrination into the
world of books, an indoctrination that is particularly necessary for a
generation that is accustomed to doing all of its research on the Internet.
"They ask me, 'How do we footnote information from the Internet?'" he says
with a hint of astonishment. "Well, the Internet provides some very
valuable information, but it also provides you with some very misleading
information. A lot of distortion. And I guess I'm still old-fashioned
enough to believe that a student should do more than sit at a machine."
This year, for the first time, Litwack plans to allow his students
to use certain pre-approved Web sites, but he will not be sending them to
the main stacks. The main library, he says, is no longer suited to the
research needs of his students.
To show me why, Litwack accompanied me to Doe, the campus's main
library. It's a lovely granite building, built in 1907 with a $780,000
grant from lumberman and bibliophile Charles Franklin Doe. Four years ago,
the building's old and overcrowded stacks were replaced by a new
143,000-square-foot facility named in honor of former university president
David Pierpont Gardener (the appellation infuriates people like Gray
Brechin, who note that much of the library's decline occurred under
Gardener's reign). The new stacks are a marvel of contemporary design;
although built entirely underground, they are arranged around a circular
staircase whose starburst-patterned skylight manages to infuse all four
levels with a sense of light and air. At each landing there are tables and
chairs for lounging, and the stack areas themselves contain long wooden
study tables lit by incandescent fixtures. It's a beautiful space, but not,
in Litwack's view, a very efficient one. "I would never want to begrudge
students their wonderful tables," he said. "But we had to sacrifice
something for them."
That something, Litwack argues, is books. "It's a beautiful
building but it has no soul," he told me. "Books seem almost an
embarrassment. They're stashed away in a corner with this new system of
shelving. For browsing, can you think of anything more discouraging?"
Here he gestured to the compact shelves that occupy the north side
of the stacks. The shelves are the last innovation in library design-sleek
metal cases that have three times the capacity of traditional shelves. They
are grouped in tight rows of eight or twelve, and only one row can be
opened at a time. To get a book, you twist the crank on the row you need
opened, and the other rows then slide together like drawn drapes, allowing
you to dart into the breach.
As we stood gazing at the row that held the call numbers pertaining
to African-American history, a woman who had been squatting there with a
book on one knee jumped to her feet. "Do you need me to move?" she asked
apologetically. And that, library traditionalists say, is the problem with
compact shelving. One person can tie up twelve rows of books, and there are
stories of near-fistfights breaking out in the stacks during the crowded
times of year. As Gray Brechin remarked, "If you're at all polite, you
But browsing, in Litwack's view, is essential for research. "I tell
students, get the call numbers of the books that seem relevant to what
you're doing and then take those call numbers and go to the stacks and look
at everything else around them. Because you're going to find books by
browsing, you're going to find treasures that wouldn't have normally
attracted your attention if you had seen them in the card catalog or the
Researchers, particularly historical researchers, turn positively
lyrical when they talk about browsing. Journalist Nicholas Basbanes
described to me the excitement he had felt the week before when he had gone
into the Widener Library at Harvard to find a rare book about the library
at the Durham Cathedral and discovered a 1911 book about medieval
librarians on the shelf beside it. "This is a wonderful, wonderful book-I
copied the whole darn thing," he told me. "Now if I'm doing my research
entirely on a database on the Internet, I'm never going to find that book.
That's the serendipity of going into a library, when you find things you
never knew existed. And it happens to me all the time. I sometimes think
it's almost fated-you've been directed to this book. I can give you twenty
other instances, where you go in to find one thing, and because it's all
there, you have this spirit, this inquisitive wandering spirit. You're
drawn to things."
American libraries were designed with browsing in mind-it is the
reason for open stacks, and for arranging books by subject according to the
Library of Congress system. But browsing-or what Litwack likes to call
"reflective perusal"-is fast becoming as outmoded as the card catalog. Open
shelves simply take up too much space. Fifty-three percent of the main
library's collection is already housed off-campus, at the Northern Regional
Library Facility in Richmond, and while few people in the library
administration describe themselves as enthusiastic devotees of the new
shelving, the alternative is to send more books to storage. But there's
something else that rankles Litwack. Many of the shelves in the main stacks
are one-third to one-half vacant. "I've had people tell me that because of
the compact shelving, we have more books here than in the old Doe," Litwack
says. "But when I look at these shelves, my question has to be, 'What's at
Richmond, and why isn't it here when we have all this empty space? It
almost takes your appetite away."
hen I posed the question to Germanic collections librarian James
Spohrer, he explained that the new stacks weren't meant to be filled up
right away-they were designed with enough excess capacity to last another
three or four years. "We didn't want the building to fill up on day one, so
we would have to build a new building," he explained. Still he added, "We
have far more books than we ever had in the old stacks, by a factor of tens
of thousands. But it's hard for people to see that when they see the
Other librarians told me privately that they thought more books
could be on the shelves at Doe. "If I were in charge of the main library, I
would have more materials on the shelf than they have," said one. "They
have got the space. It has become a habit to keep sending things to
The question of what books end up in storage is a tricky one, and
one of great interest to the faculty. The simple answer is that the books
that don't circulate or seem obviously outdated are the ones that end up
being stored. But that policy, while sensible on its face, takes much of
the kismet out of library research. "You don't judge a book by when it was
last checked out," Litwack says. "There's nothing more exciting when you're
browsing than discovering that nobody has checked this book out for ten
years. Those are the treasures! But you're not going to find those
treasures in the main stack anymore. Those treasures are all at Richmond."
I had visited the Northern Regional Library Facility in Richmond a
few days before, and I could confirm that it was filled with treasures, or
at least books that were odd, old, and unusual. I had been curious about
the place ever since I was a Berkeley undergraduate confronted with the
problem of wanting to see a book that was listed in the card catalog but
stored in Richmond. Having the book retrieved was a simple matter of
filling out a request, but most of the time I didn't bother. Books from
Richmond had a cobwebby, disused feeling to them, and I always felt
somewhat apologetic about having disturbed them, as if I had woken up
Tucked behind a scrim of eucalyptus on the grounds of the
university's Richmond field station, the NRLF is a low, white warehouse
with a taller red annex adhered to its hind end, a monument to
functionality over form. It is, in the words of Virginia Moon, the
facility's head of deposit services, "a facility for little used books."
There are 4.3 million such books inside the building, 3 million of which
belong to UC Berkeley.
Moon has graying black hair, a ready smile, and a slight Southern
accent, and she proved to be an enjoyable tour guide, not only because she
had a good sense of which things were interesting and which were not, but
also because she was the first person I had met in the library system who
did not seem to be suffering from a certain weariness of spirit. The NRLF
hasn't had to reckon with the increased expectations and decreased
resources that have plagued the campus libraries; its job is simply to
store and retrieve books. Requests for books come in by fax, phone, or
e-mail, and the NRLF staff promises that the books will arrive at the main
library within 24 hours, although it can take as few as two. The facility
can also scan articles from journals and e-mail them directly to faculty
and student accounts.
At the loading dock, workers in white gloves were quietly putting a
new shipment of books on carts, checking them first for dirt, damage, and
insects, and then sorting them by size. Size is the sole criteria by which
books are judged at the NRLF; in order to save space, they are organized on
the shelves by height rather than by call number. Each book receives an
NRLF bar code when it arrives on the loading dock, and if that book is
permanently recalled to the main library, the same code will be bestowed on
another book of equivalent size. The facility was the first in the library
system to go online, and its database records not only when the book was
purchased and by whom, but also whether its pages are brittle or its
binding beginning to fray.
As we walked through the main floor toward the elevator that leads
to the stacks, I found myself stopping to examine the contents of the carts
that were parked nearby. There were civil engineering hydraulics abstracts
from 1988, Indian government reports with titles like "Demarcation of
Responsibilities" and "Department of Posts and Telegraphs," a big folder of
US agriculture department weather maps, and grainy Chinese newspapers from
the 1940s. "This is a problem-high acid paper," Moon observed as I looked
over the yellowing pages. "I can walk up and smell a high acid truck." I
bent down and sniffed the pages, encountering an acrid smell like vinegar
or photo chemicals.
Nearby was a stack of acid-free cartons and when I went over to see
what was in them, I saw that they were labeled "John Mortimer, papers." I
peered into the top carton (Moon watching me carefully), and saw a stack of
folders, each one containing the notes for a Mortimer story: "Rumpole's
Last Case," "Rumpole and the Blind Tasting." "Needless to say, the Bancroft
material is the most popular here," Moon remarked as I reluctantly replaced
the lid on the carton.
When we reached the third floor, Moon led me through an air lock
and into the stacks themselves. In the dim light I could make out endless
rows of shelves that reminded me, melodramatically, of prison cells. The
room was cold and echoey and I could feel my nostrils tickle in the dry
air, kept at a constant fifty percent humidity to preserve the books.
Moon showed me how the staff shelves the books two-deep to save
space, and then she let me poke around for a few minutes, examining The
Memoirs of Baron De Marbot and The Student's Standard English-Urdu
Dictionary and a bound collection of The American Bee Journal from 1939. I
asked Moon if many books had gone back to Doe after the new stacks opened
in 1994. "No," she said after a moment's thought. "Some things have gone
back, but not many."
As amusing as it was to read about prewar beekeeping and look up
the Urdu word for "sandwich," I had more fun on the fourth floor where the
most valuable books and manuscripts are kept. It is the fourth floor that
has the look of an old library, shelves piled with ledgers, manuscript
boxes, and leatherbound volumes with ridged spines and intriguing gilt
titles like The Country Around Manchester and Eggs of British Birds. There
were four-inch-high 18th-century field guides teeming with colored plates
of butterflies, bound volumes of the Daily Alta California dating from
1860, and ledgers from the Union Lumber Company of Fort Bragg, which
recorded payments made for meat and taxes during the month of March, 1900.
"Can you imagine pulling this out every day?" Moon said as she hefted the
ledger back into place. "This is what people did before computers."
I described all this to Litwack as we walked through the main
stacks, and he listened raptly. "But of course you realized it can't be
browsed," he said when I was done. "They're not arranged that way."
A few days later I met with Ellen Meltzer, who runs the teaching
library that is housed at Moffitt. The teaching library was created in 1993
to teach both students and faculty how to do research. In practice, that
means teaching students how to use books, and teaching faculty how to use
computers. "The students want to go to the Web for their information, and
for those of us who were brought up in the book world, it's hard to take,"
she said. "This is such a fabulous collection. You can have a really
obscure index to some kind of newspaper or some kind of periodical, and you
look up the citation in our catalog and we have it. I don't know if the
students know what a treasure we have."
Meltzer has a round face and earnest dark eyes, and when she really
means something she gives a quick smile for emphasis. Like many librarians
on campus, her speech is cautious, a legacy of having been on the defensive
for most of the decade. And it's a strange time for librarians.
Bibliophiles by nature, they have found themselves proselytizers for a new
technology that threatens to eclipse -and perhaps replace-the printed page.
"Although some people see digitizing the collection as taking away from the
print collection, we have almost no choice," she told me. "I mean, we're
not spending the money that people imagine we're spending, but I think
Berkeley is a leader, a national and international leader, and we need to
be doing this."
Starting at the library's Web page (www.lib.berkeley.edu), Meltzer
took me on a whirlwind tour, talking all the while. In quick succession we
visited MAGS, a full-text online database of 1,500 popular and scholarly
periodicals, and JSTOR, an archive of academic journals that allowed us to
look up the coalminers' strike of 1897 in the Journal of Economic History.
We examined photos of Ansel Adams and read a little of Jack London's Iron
Heel in the Bancroft archives, looked up a recent discussion of the Irish
potato famine in a database called NEWS, and whipped past such intriguing
offerings as the "Advanced Papyrological Info System" (a "virtual library
with catalogs of each papyrus and its characteristics"), and the Earth
Sciences and Map Library's catalog of Aerial Photography. Then Meltzer
reproduced a search she had done for a student who was looking for
information on the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, an obscure
anti-miscegenation law from Virginia that she ultimately located on a
Eugenics Bibliography posted on the World Wide Web. When we were done I
felt dizzy, breathless, and absolutely certain I would never be able to
make sense of all those databases on my own.
"There's so much out there that it does take some expertise and
some winnowing down," Meltzer admitted. "To have someone help you, that's
the coin of the realm. You can bumble your way through. But if you're
trying to do research, scholarly research, or really find out something,
the Web is not the place." Then she gave me one of her quick smiles. "Who'd
have thought," she said, "that our whole orientation in the library would
be around the Web?"
I think we are at a time of profound cultural change," Professor
Robert Berring told me the same afternoon. "I think we are moving from an
entire culture that's based around the book to a new form of intellectual
and social communication. Right now we're at a time when both cultures
overlap, and it's a very difficult time for libraries."
Berring is a bearlike man with a quick wit and a well-developed
sense of irony. He is both a law professor and the law librarian at Boalt
Hall, and as the former dean of Berkeley's library school, he's in a good
position to talk about the way libraries are changing. "Institutions have
made the jump to the next generation of electronic information, and it's
very appealing because it's glitzy, it's cutting edge, big boys play with
it, and they believe that there are cost benefits involved," he says. "It's
expensive to build buildings, it's expensive to house all those books, and
it's expensive to hire people to take care of them. And so we've been
shrinking the size of the library staff, we've been increasingly moving to
offsite storage, and there's been a general movement away from having
reference librarians as the first contact people for undergraduates and
graduate students. I think that's a gigantic mistake."
The problem, Berring says, is that the online environment is not
mature enough to take on the responsibilities the new generation of library
planners have in mind for it. "As appealing as leaping into the future may
sound, there is nothing there to land upon yet," he wrote in a California
Monthly essay that was published alongside Litwack's. Instead, the Internet
is a pastiche of serious research and unsubstantiated rumor, an uncurated
museum of information where finger paintings and Picassos hang side by
side. It is also, as Meltzer pointed out, easy to use poorly and difficult
to use well.
And that is why God created librarians. All the librarians I
interviewed for this story told me that they had chosen the profession
because they liked helping people-not, as you might expect, because they
liked books. "I used to be a reference librarian and I think it's one of
the greatest jobs on earth," Berring told me. "And the reason is, people
who come to the reference desk, for each one of them it's a big problem: I
can't find blank. And a lot of the time, I do know where blank is and I can
explain how you find it. What librarians have always been good at is
working with humans. The people who design computer systems are not good at
working with humans. They don't have a sense of how people use things. If
people have trouble using their elegant system, they blame the people."
The result has been that the information explosion has dramatically
increased the workload for librarians. Ten years ago you could walk into
any library in the country and feel fairly confident that if you opened up
the drawer of the card catalog labeled "Da to De" you would be able to find
books about Dante and Debussy and Dentistry. But every online database has
its own array of buttons, boxes, and codes, and the fact that you've
developed a facility with one is no guarantee that you'll be able to use
another. Even MELVYL and GLADIS, the computerized catalogs for the UC
system and UC Berkeley respectively, require the user to type in different
search commands. Multiply that by the thousands of catalogs, databases,
bibliographies, and indices available online, and you have a lot of
questions for the reference librarian.
But Berkeley has 38 percent fewer professional librarians than it
had ten years ago, and many of the reference desks have been left
unstaffed, or staffed by people without the expertise to answer complex
questions. "If you've ever tried to surf the Net and you're looking for
festivals in Switzerland, you'll know why we need librarians," James
Spohrer explains. "Because you'll come up with 25,000 hits, and if you're
lucky you can go through one-tenth of them before you actually have to
leave. What librarians do is they decant information for you. We had over
25,000 reference sources in our old reference room at Doe. Not every
librarian knew what was in every one of them, but as a group the staff knew
how to answer just about any question on academic subjects or any subject
that would be interesting to people in a college setting. As it stands now,
the information center [in the main library] is staffed largely by library
assistants, who in most cases don't have a degree in library studies."
The added demand on staff is just one of the many hidden costs of
the new technology. Another is the cost of the machines themselves. "People
budget for the equipment, but they don't budget for the replacement of the
equipment in a relatively short period of time," observes John Roberts, the
head of the Music Library. "As the library gets more and more computers,
the cost of maintaining that array of machines becomes greater and greater.
And that is not a problem that has been satisfactorily addressed. I don't
mean just fixing them. I mean replacing them. Because the technology is
changing so rapidly that perfectly good machines have to be phased out
because they can't handle the latest software." The library now has over
800 PC workstations, 2,000 network connections, and three large servers.
The cost of maintaining and upgrading these resources is estimated to be
about $665,000 per year, but that's predicated on replacing the machines
every five years, which may be overly optimistic. Upgrading the 200
machines that don't have any graphics capabilities would cost another
$575,000, plus an additional $165,000 per year in maintenance costs.
So far, the library hasn't had to pay much of the cost of the new
technology. Most of the funding for digitizing the collection has come from
private donations, while a $250,000 annual contribution from the vice
chancellor's "Digital Library Fund" pays for digital subscriptions.
Digitized versions of books and journals are often more expensive than their printed equivalents, but so far they account for only about three
percent of the library's collection budget. "To me it's kind of a red
herring to say we stopped building the printed collections in order to
build the digital collections," Spohrer says. "We still put more than 95
percent of our materials funding into the printed collection. Not to say
that it's enough, but even before the arrival of the digital library
options we didn't have enough."
Still, Berkeley's digital collection is now considered one of the
best in the country, with 124 new databases added in the past two years
alone. And in October, the UC system launched the California Digital
Library with an initial investment of $1.5 million that will be augmented
by contributions from each of the campuses. "We're pursuing it as a tenth
library for the UC system," explains the Digital Library's John Ober.
"While the CDL provides some seed money, the nine campuses are coinvestors,
and they have agreed to that." The virtual library will open its doors in
January, offering such things as online versions of scientific journals,
technical reports, and images from art museums. It is also expected to move
UC a little closer to the "One University, One Library" model with a
program that allows faculty and graduate students to use their own
computers to request materials from other campus libraries.
All of these are wonderful resources. But when the so-called book
dinosaurs walk through the libraries and see rows of new computers flashing
colorful graphics at the same time that the traditional collections are
withering away for lack of sustenance, it's hard not to compare the two.
"The systemwide office in downtown Oakland is hiring all kinds of new
people for the Digital Library, but they're certainly not hiring any new
librarians," one librarian told me bitterly. Extra funds are going to
computers and not to books, and while that doesn't necessarily represent
the values of the UC Berkeley librarian's office, it does reflect the
values of our culture, and of commerce. Pacific Bell and Sun Microsystems
didn't ante up half a million dollars for books, they anted up money for
computers, with the understanding that as both the library and its students
grow accustomed to finding information at the push of a button rather than
with a turn of the page, the flow of dollars will eventually reverse
"If you graduate from college and the only way you know how to find
information is through a full-text online database, then you're going to
buy one for your house, or your company is going to buy one for you,"
Berring says. "It's a brilliant strategy. The way you're trained is the way
you become comfortable. So they should give it away."
Berring doesn't buy the argument that the growth of digital
resources on campus is unrelated to the decline of the printed collection.
"It's completely bogus to say that the campus investment in computerization
and information systems and networking and Intra- and Internet systems
hasn't come at the cost of the libraries, because that's the information
budget," he says. "So maybe it never passed through the [head] librarian's
hands, but to the university it's one big budget. Now I grant you that a
place like the university is in a pickle, because they don't want to hold
onto a dying technology, the book. But I still think it's the only reliable
one, especially for a large research institution like Berkeley."
The odd thing about the debate over books vs. computers is that
it's hard to find anyone on the Berkeley campus who says that technology
will save the library. There is no equivalent to Ken Dowlin, the former
head of the San Francisco Public Library who so famously tried to divest
the city of its awkward collection of books. When I asked Penny Abell, the
former head librarian at Yale who became Berkeley's interim chief librarian
in July, what she thought of the notion that the library of the future
would be a "gateway" rather than a repository of information, she wrinkled
her nose as if she'd just encountered a bad smell, and then covered her
nose with her hand to keep it from saying any more. "The key here is what's
the most available and appropriate source for information," she said. "From
the user's perspective, it's not appropriate to talk about whether
libraries are relevant, it's appropriate to think how we can meet the needs
of the people who are trying to get their hands on information. I think the
old, rich historic collections are going to be with us for a long time. And
the online world will continue to expand."
Even the programmers creating the new digital libraries are
old-fashioned book lovers. One is a Shakespeare scholar; another is a
historian. "We all have backgrounds in the humanities and the arts," one
told me. "I think all of us just wanted to make it easier for people to use
the library. Right now all this Internet stuff is popular and sexy, and
it's easier to get grants when something is trendy. But when it isn't
anymore, we're in the same boat as the Mark Twain papers." (The Twain
papers' archiving staff recently had to scramble to find matching funds for
their NEH grant.)
"There are people among those who use the library who wish that
digitization would go away, but I don't think you would find any librarians
who have that attitude," agrees music librarian John Roberts. "I think it's
perfectly clear that there are some enormous advantages to having a great
deal of information in digital form. The real questions have to do with the
pace at which the change is going to happen, and where we can expect to end
up. Above all, are books and paper going to go away? Is the library as a
particular place where you go to look at them going to disappear? Or are we
going to continue to be a culture for a long time which deals with
information both in traditional forms and electronic forms?" Your view on
some of these questions depends on your discipline, Roberts says -in
science and business there is more demand for the extremely current
information that is available digitally than there is in a field like
music. But the sciences rely on printed sources as well, and their
faculties have been some of the more outspoken on campus about the need to
maintain the traditional collections. "The best solution is to have
everything in both forms," Roberts concludes. "But we can't have that. So
it comes down to choosing what we can afford to have in what form."
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