The Fate of the Books
- Part Three

Unfortunately, the choices are not necessarily going to be made by librarians. The information future is being decided by the new class of entrepreneurs known as information vendors, and their priorities are not necessarily the same as the priorities of academic libraries. "A lot of the things librarians used to do-gather the information, put it in order, make it available to you-that's all done by the vendor of the information now," Berring warns. "Well, who's going to preserve it? Who's going to make the choices? Who's going to say what's credible and not credible? And who's going to guarantee that what you see at a Web site today is going to be there three years from now? If the choices about what information is available are made by private enterprise on a marketing basis, by what will sell, then what you will find is distribution of the most desirable and interesting information. And oftentimes that's not the most useful information, it's not the most reliable information, and it's not the information that the culture or the society is going to need five or ten years from now."

There's another reason that digital libraries aren't necessarily suited to serve as cultural archives: they don't last. Books and documents can last hundreds of years, depending on the quality of the paper they were printed on, and the technology of the printed page shows no sign of becoming outdated. But CD-ROM disks degrade in fifty years, and the rapid pace of technological change has meant that many digital files are already unreadable simply because no one has the software to decode them. Ten to twenty percent of the data from the 1976 Viking mission to Mars has already been lost because of the degradation of the magnetic tape on which it was stored. And as the writer Nicholson Baker has argued at length in the pages of the New Yorker, whole portions of library collections can vanish into the ether when the person typing entries into an online catalog happens to miskey a word.

Librarians are well aware of these dangers, but there isn't a whole lot they can do about it. The information revolution has a momentum all its own, and as in all revolutions, those who urge caution are generally the first to be beheaded. Universities around the country are closing their library schools, the rationale being that the new world of databases and instant communication has no room for the stereotypical librarian with the cat eye spectacles and the "Quiet Please" sign on her desk. UC Berkeley closed its library school three years ago, and reorganized it as the School of Information Management and Systems. (The library school's library, with its excellent collection of children's books, closed as well, the books merged with other campus collections or deaccessioned.) The new dean of the school is an economist, and the people who graduate from the program will work in the private sector as "Information Managers." "If you apply saying you want to be a librarian, you don't get in," Berring says. "They are training people for this new profession-the people who will run things. And for whom librarians will work."

"There is an irony in this," he continues. "Time magazine and Forbes magazine are running these articles on 'Information, the career of the future.' Well, librarians have been taking care of information for the past couple thousand years. Shouldn't that be us? But they don't want the service ethic and all of that, they want the hard-striving, dynamic folks. This should be librarians' moment in the sun. And instead we run the risk of becoming a vestigial profession."

Much of the redesigning of libraries that has happened in the past few years has had a populist rationale. Libraries are public institutions, the argument goes, and they should serve as broad a segment of the public as possible. That makes it hard to justify taking up valuable space with books or documents that the majority of people will never use, when the public is clamoring for bestsellers, Time magazine, and instant sports updates on the ESPN Web page. On the Berkeley campus, that logic has been felt particularly acutely among libraries, like the journalism school's, that are not under the jurisdiction of the university librarian's office. In recent years, many independent libraries with unusual collections, like Water Resources Center Archives, the Institute for Transportation Studies, and the Institute for Governmental Studies, have been threatened with consolidation or closure.

"Independent libraries have things that aren't collected very often," a librarian at one of these more obscure libraries told me. "Very often they're there for the research value, for the esoteric user. But these days, with this cost-benefit consideration, the feeling is, let Harvard do it, or let somebody else do it. It's more of a mass marketing model-you service as many as you can. And there's an argument to be made for this-we're a publicly funded institution. We're not Harvard or Yale. We have to serve the public. But if a major academic research library like Berkeley isn't going to collect this material, who is? Where are the resources going to be to examine the past?"

Digital resources, in contrast, tend to be seen as egalitarian. "With an electronic library, a person's rural or metropolitan residence would not affect his or her ability to access the scholarly works, new scientific advances, or artistic performances stored in such an entity," Hawkins rhapsodizes in "The Unsustainability of the Traditional Library and the Threat to Higher Education." "This resource would mitigate the further polarization in our society of those who had books in one's home and those who did not."

Granted, posting Emma Goldman's papers on the Web makes her writings available to people who wouldn't necessarily trek over to the Bancroft to look at them in person. But few educational and class barriers are going to be traversed simply by digitizing some text and posting it on the Internet. The physical distance between a Goldman admirer and the library is nothing compared to the psychological distance between the Goldman Web site and someone who has never heard of Goldman and can't afford a computer.

"There's always been an information elite," Berring observes. "People with money have always had better information. But the difference is going to be magnified by a factor of ten because the standard systems that people are getting used to are going to get more and more expensive. There's that moment in Good Will Hunting where Will Hunting says to a Harvard student he meets in a bar, 'You're paying $150,000 for an education you could have got for $1.50 worth of late fees at the public library.' Well, that's not going to be true anymore. Because the new information is not going to be coming out in book form. And it's more likely that the public library is going to be checking out videos and CDs. The high-quality institutional analysis is only going to be available to the people who can afford it."

Not all the news about the UC Berkeley library is bad. In fact, compared to the past decade, it's been a banner year. This spring, the library announced that private donors had contributed $4.8 million towards an endowment for the humanities collection, a sum that will be matched by $1 million from the National Endowment for the Humanities. And in April, Chancellor Robert Berdahl began his inaugural address by promising to invest a total of $5.5 million of permanent money into the library over the next three years. "This is a significant step in the right direction," says interim university librarian Penny Abell. "And more will be needed. But that's only one piece of our problem. The other piece is that we've taken such heavy cuts in staff. Rebuilding our collections without rebuilding our ability to get those books on the shelves, without rebuilding our ability to help people find their way through the collection, that is the issue we have to deal with. The chancellor's money will allow us to pay our bills, but not hire any additional staff."

Abell herself is another positive development, a plain-speaking woman who exudes both good humor and good sense. She has already managed to inspire a glimmer of optimism within the ranks, optimism that will help sustain the libraries until a permanent successor is found.

It will take a long time to bring the Berkeley library back to where it was in the early 1980s, and many say that the damage that was done to the collection during the past decade of decline can never really be made up. "I'd like to be optimistic because I think the future of this university is very much at stake," Litwack said when I asked him to assess the state of the library the other day. "And if I am optimistic it's because of Berdahl's commitment and the fact that more people on campus are concerned about the library. But to be optimistic, I need concrete evidence of the improved ability of my students to do research. As fall semester opens, the stacks remain half empty, there's very little ability to browse, and the library staff remains overburdened. I cannot, with any confidence, send my students into the stacks to do research."

One afternoon a few weeks ago I found myself with a little time to spare between interviews, and I decided to visit one of the places I loved best when I was a student, the Morrison Reading Room in the Doe Library.>The original Morrison Room is closed while the northwest wing of the building undergoes seismic renovations, but the collection and the old manor house trappings have been set up in another wing. It is a tranquil, old-fashioned place, meant to be reminiscent of the private libraries in Victorian novels, with Oriental carpets, armchairs, and floor lamps hung with fringed, parchment-colored shades. Much of the collection is contemporary poetry, and after poking around a while I came across an Annie Dillard volume entitled Mornings Like This. The poems in the book, Dillard explains in her introduction, are found poems, composed by "extracting and rearranging sentences from old or odd books." Flipping through the pages, I saw that Dillard had taken passages from Nature's Diary by Mikhail Prishvin, The American Boy's Handy Book, The Friendly Stars, and Observations and Experiments in Natural History. I imagined her browsing through public libraries and second-hand shops for old and odd books that had poems buried within them, and wondered what poems she might have unearthed in The Beekeeping Journal or The Memoirs of Baron De Marbot. The notion made me think of something Nicholson Baker wrote in his famous 1994 defense of the card catalog.

"The function of a great library is to store obscure books. This is above all the task we want libraries to perform: to hold on to books we don't want enough to own, books of very limited appeal. A book whose presence you crave at your bedside or whose referential or snob value you think you will need throughout your life, you buy. Libraries are repositories for the out of print and the less desired, and we value them inestimably for that. The fact that most library books seldom circulate is part of the mystery and power of libraries. The books are there, waiting from age to age until their moment comes."

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