The Fate of the Books
- Part One

  • Click here for another article about the destruction of the library of the University of California at Berkeley.

    By Dashka Slater

    Last spring, Gray Brechin went to the School of Journalism's library at UC Berkeley looking for a 1948 volume called Selections from the Writings and Speeches of William Randolph Hearst. Brechin, a postdoctoral fellow in the geography department, had used the book several years before, but now, when he wanted to check the citation for his dissertation, he found that both the book and the library he remembered had vanished. What had once been a collection of roughly 4,500 volumes had been reduced by a good third to accommodate an airy conference center and reading room. All that remained of the library that Brechin had visited a few years before were the thirty drawers of the old card catalog.

    Brechin, a passionate advocate of libraries and a veteran of the epic 1996 fight to save the collection of the San Francisco Public Library from the landfill, was beside himself. "I'm going to request that the journalism department pay $100 for each book they discarded, which is what I would have to pay if I had done something like that," he told me.

    It turned out that a few members of the journalism school faculty had weeded the collection when the library was converted into a conference center several years ago, saving only those books that they thought were useful to the current faculty and students. If it seemed that a discarded book might be useful to the campus's main library they sent it there; the others were piled in the hallways for students to take home. "You can look at it different ways," associate dean Tom Leonard explains. "We're all aware of what happened at the San Francisco Public Library. But we thought we were simply culling."

    Leonard is active in library affairs on campus, sitting on both the Academic Senate's library committee and on the search committee that is looking for a new university librarian, but he seemed puzzled by my interest in the journalism school's modest collection of materials. The university's main and undergraduate libraries and its nineteen branch libraries are all under the purview of the university librarian, but those departments with their own libraries tend to look at them in much the same way that they look at their filing cabinets and rolodexes-useful to be sure, but hardly noteworthy. "This isn't, shall we say, Alexandria," journalism dean Orville Schell told me. "But it's a nice bunch of books."

    Yet to Gray Brechin, the disappearance of the journalism school library reflects in miniature what is happening to the UC Berkeley libraries as a whole-a gradual diminishment of one of the greatest libraries in the world. "People have to understand the value, not only to California but to the nation, of a great research library," he says.

    Brechin has pale red hair and a smile that crinkles the corners of his eyes and exposes each of his small teeth. He has had a passion for libraries ever since a public librarian took him under her wing when he was a boy in Mountain View, saving him from what felt like intellectual starvation. So it's not surprising that he should fall in love with the collection at UC Berkeley when he came here to complete his doctorate in 1992. He spent hours prowling through the main stacks, which in those days were dim and cramped and piled high with books that could no longer be squeezed onto the shelves. Here were 18th-century volumes bound in pigskin, books that looked as if they belonged in a museum rather than a library. When he began the research for a book about the influence of prominent San Francisco families on the Pacific Basin, he brought a chair into the stacks and browsed through whole runs of 19th-century magazines, bookmarking articles he'd want copies of later on. "That's the only way you can get to know a historical period," he says now. "I'm afraid for students of the future. They won't have a chance to do that."

    The UC Berkeley collection is still considered one of the best in North America, with eight million books, 80,000 current serials, and 110,000 government documents housed in the main and undergraduate libraries, nineteen specialized branches, and more than eighteen affiliated and departmental libraries that report to departmental deans or directors rather than the university librarian. It is not your average collection of books. The Music Library contains an 11th-century Gregorian chant manuscript and the only known copy of an opera by Scarlatti; the rare books and manuscripts collection at the Bancroft Library includes the papers of Mark Twain, Emma Goldman, Jack London, and Henry Kaiser; and the early manuscripts, scrolls, and engraved maps held by the East Asian Library are considered national treasures.

    But all is not well with the Berkeley libraries. In April, the university learned that its library, long regarded as the second best academic library in North America, had fallen to fifth place in the rankings compiled by the Association of Research Libraries. Once surpassed only by Harvard, the Berkeley library has now sunk behind UCLA, Yale, and the University of Toronto, and many people believe that it will fall another notch next year. Already the Berkeley library ranks eighth for new volumes added to the collection, and seventh for library expenditures, and most observers say that its overall ranking is as high as it is because of the number of books it accumulated in the past. Since 1989, when the university administration imposed the first in what would be eight years of consecutive cuts to the library budget, the library has lost 38 percent of its librarians and twenty percent of its other staff. The result has been that the collection has become inaccessible to many of its former users. Perhaps most telling of all, the library now accounts for a mere 3.56 percent of the campus budget, down from 5.26 percent in 1982. "The Berkeley library is in a state of near crisis," a team of outside advisors recently told a blue ribbon committee that was convened last year to evaluate the situation. "Corrective action must be taken soon to avoid disaster and get back on a normal course."

    Part of the problem is that Berkeley demands far more from its library than most. The campus supports 104 graduate programs, more than any other university, and the library committee of the Academic Senate has gone so far as to recommend that some of those programs be closed if the library cannot provide the collections necessary to sustain teaching and research in those disciplines. But it is also true that Berkeley's library has stagnated while other universities, even other UC campuses, have been able to grow.

    In 1989 the University of California's Office of the President abandoned a formula that required each campus to give a certain amount of money to its library. Each of the nine UC campuses could now decide what percentage of its overall budget would be invested in the library. Unfortunately, the new funding arrangement coincided with a statewide recession that left each campus looking for places to save money. At Berkeley, that place was the library. "There wasn't anybody to stick up for the libraries," says Robert Berring, the former dean of the UC Berkeley library school who is now the law librarian at Boalt Hall. "There wasn't anyone who had a place at the table in the leadership of the university over the last twenty years who really cared about this. It's a mom and apple pie issue; if you ask people, 'Are the libraries important?' they'd say, 'Yes, they are.' But no one is willing to spend money on it, or plan for it. And in the bad years-and there were bad years in the last decade-the library took enormous hits, way out of proportion."

    Meanwhile, librarians were being encouraged to take advantage of early retirement offers, and as positions emptied out, the remaining librarians were dispatched to new positions, often without the requisite qualifications. The people who shape the collections in different disciplines have traditionally held advanced degrees in that discipline in addition to their library degree: the music librarian has a PhD in musicology; the librarian for the Slavic collections has a PhD in Russian literature. Now it was no longer possible to maintain that standard of expertise. Specialty areas like chemistry and Judaica were filled by librarians from other disciplines, or left unfilled. "If you're not given the money to recruit, or the permission to recruit, there's no solution except moving around personnel," says Alan Urbanic, the librarian for the Slavic collections. "It created a lot of ill will with the academic departments against the libraries. And that was very demoralizing."

    It didn't help that four different people served as university librarian in one eight-year period (the latest, Peter Lyman, announced his resignation in January), or that both the faculty and the librarians spent their energy bickering over whose discipline was getting a bigger piece of the quickly diminishing pie. Nor did it help that then-chancellor Chang-Lin Tien was battling with the UC regents over such issues as affirmative action and couldn't be made to feel the urgency of the library's predicament. "We knew for some time, for some years, that the library was in decline, and we were not successful in making our case to the campus that something needed to be done," says James Spohrer, the librarian for the Germanic collections. "To be perfectly honest, we needed a change at the very top for our message to get through. We were treated as if we were crying wolf." In response to a series of increasingly urgent entreaties from both the university librarian's office and campus faculty, Tien did award three one-time allocations to the library collections budget in 1997, but they were accompanied by a cut to the operations budget.

    Berkeley's is certainly not the only research library facing a funding crisis. The past few years have been tough for academic libraries, largely because of the rising cost of academic journals. A small number of commercial publishers have bought up dozens of academic publishers, and the result has been a 148 percent increase in the cost of scholarly journals in the last decade. Some journals now cost as much as $10,000 for eighteen issues. As prices go up, libraries find themselves having to be increasingly selective about which ones they buy. Publishers then raise their prices to recoup the loss, and the cycle continues. Two-thirds of Berkeley's collection budget goes to academic journals, and library officials estimate that the budget will have to increase by ten percent each year just to keep up with inflation. The same holds true for the 89 other libraries whose budgets are monitored by the Association of Research Libraries. While the average library collection budget increased by 82 percent between 1981 and 1995, actual buying power decreased by 38 percent.

    All of this is happening in the midst of a tremendous explosion of information. More books are being written, more magazines are being published, more information is being transformed into byte-sized pieces and disseminated on the Internet or CD-ROM. As Brown University administrator Brian Hawkins wrote in a 1996 paper called "The Unsustainability of the Traditional Library and the Threat to Higher Education," the growth in available information combined with a reduction in buying power means that libraries are able to preserve a smaller and smaller fraction of the scholarly record. "Traditionally libraries collect only about six percent of all information that is published," he writes. "Without intervention, even this amount of preservation is in serious jeopardy." At current funding levels, he predicts, libraries will only be archiving one-tenth of one percent of the available information by the year 2001.

    Hawkins' solution is for libraries to "develop a new paradigm." "The impracticality of continuing to build large, costly, warehouse-type structures to shelve printed materials, thus replicating collections that exist elsewhere, causes one to ask whether established practices, which are already eroding, can be continued very much longer," he observes in a section that was recently quoted by UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor Carol Christ. Instead, universities must begin building the "library of the future" which will, in Hawkins' rather ominous words, "be about access and knowledge-management, not about ownership." In this bright future, it will make little sense for both the Berkeley and Stanford libraries to insist on owning a complete run of the Journal for Brain Research, or Selections from the Writings and Speeches of William Randolph Hearst, when one copy can be shared through inter-library loan or could be digitized and made accessible through the Internet. "Not only would electronic storage be far cheaper, it would also eliminate the present duplication," Hawkins writes. "Information could be available in a very few defined locations on the network, and yet accessible to users internationally, at all times and places that the network was available."

    The phrases vary from institution to institution, but the notion that libraries must be fundamentally rethought seems to have become a bibliological commonplace. I recently spoke with Nicholas Basbanes, a journalist whose 1995 book, A Gentle Madness, chronicled contemporary and historical bibliomaniacs. Basbanes' next book will be about libraries, and he told me that he is seeing the same trends at research libraries around the country-a gee-willikers enthusiasm for digital technology accompanied by a sharp curtailment of ambition for the printed collection. "Books matter, books still very much matter at research libraries like Berkeley," he told me. "But as a research librarian from another major university just said to me, they're mattering less and less. Because they are reassessing-the word he used was 'inventory.' They think of books as inventory, and what that does is put books in the general category of tools."

    At the University of California, the new philosophy is embodied in the rallying cry, "One University, One Library." A March report on the future of the UC libraries entitled the "Library of Tomorrow" states baldly that "Current practices, including the building of nine comprehensive research collections, cannot be sustained." While warning that digital technologies cannot entirely replace print collections, the authors of the report nonetheless conclude that the future lies in computer technology and inter-library loans. Berkeley's own Blue Ribbon Committee on the Library reluctantly reached the same verdict, predicting a "fundamental shift in emphasis in the library from being primarily a repository of materials to a gateway to information," a shift that the authors noted had already begun.

    Berkeley already has an "Information Gateway." You can find it on the main floor of Moffitt Library; just look for the sign spelling out this latest library science buzzword in blue neon script. A room that once held reference materials and other books is now occupied by 36 computers-each one sporting a Pacific Bell screensaver-a boomerang-shaped help desk, and a vending machine that dispenses diskettes. If you shut your eyes, all you can hear is the white hum of the machines and the tinny click of keys.

    I first visited the Information Gateway with history professor Leon Litwack, the former chair of the Academic Senate's committee on libraries. Litwack hadn't been to Moffitt since the information center opened at the end of last year, and the expression on his face could only be described as incredulous. "Are the books downstairs?" he asked the librarian staffing the help desk.

    "Some of them," the librarian said wearily. "They've kind of scattered them."

    "Why's that?"

    "They want to keep them out of reach. They might be useful."

    "This is all computers?"

    "Yes," and here the librarian gave a wan smile. "We've sold our soul."

    The word soul has a funny way of cropping up when people talk about the difference between computers and books, but if Moffitt lost its soul, it lost it long before the Pacific Bell Foundation rewired the main floor to create the Information Gateway. Built in 1970, the homely, poured-concrete edifice was originally conceived as a haven for undergraduates-a liberal arts collection of roughly 150,000 "best books." Undergraduates weren't allowed into the stacks at Doe, the main library, and the theory was that perhaps they deserved a smaller, browsable collection of their own. The new library was stocked with books that catered to undergraduate interests, including fledgling disciplines like ethnic studies and women's studies, and it had its own easy-to-use card catalog, which was, like the collection, entirely in English.

    But in recent years the notion of a special undergraduate library has fallen out of favor, with critics referring to it disparagingly as a "baby library" with "baby books." Undergraduates are now allowed in the main stacks, and the creation of the online catalog, GLADIS, made the holdings of Doe and the branch libraries, immediately evident, so it seemed silly to pretend that students were going to restrict their research to the books they could find in Moffitt. With no clearly defined purpose for Moffitt, the ills that plagued the rest of the library system seemed to strike the undergraduate library with a particular vengeance. The collection, which had always been weeded fairly aggressively, was trimmed back to 80,000 volumes to make room for the technical services offices that were moved in from Doe during that building's seismic retrofit. For several months no books were purchased for Moffitt at all. Because the libraries were short-staffed, Moffitt librarians went to other branches to help shoulder the workload. In 1996 the reference desk at Moffitt was closed entirely. A sign instructed patrons needing help to visit the reference desk at Doe.

    But then help arrived, in the form of a grant from the Pacific Bell Foundation to rewire the building for the Internet. The library matched the grant with money for new flooring, furniture, and computers, and staff returned to Moffitt's reference desk. The only trouble, as I learned from the librarian who spoke of the building's missing soul, is that there aren't any reference books for the librarians to use. There are CD-ROM disks offering arts and humanities databases, an Ethnic Newswatch, and dissertation abstracts from 1861 to 1996; there's an impressive array of online indexing and abstracting services, catalogs, and full text databases, but there's not so much as a single paperback thesaurus. "We can't help them," the librarian said. "They know more than we do about the computers, and we don't have books. We end up sending them to the branch libraries, because they have books."

    I am not a Luddite," Leon Litwack had told me earlier that day. "I don't believe in tearing down the machines. Computer technology can be terribly useful, as long as it doesn't become an end in itself. All we're asking for is a sense of balance. In different parts of the university we often differ in our dependence on printed collections, on periodicals, on computer technology. But we've seen a steady erosion of printed collections, and those are things that we in the humanities depend on. The university has always prided itself on giving our scientists the best possible equipment and laboratories. And that's fine. But what I keep pointing out is that the library is our lab. That's where we do our investigations, and our dissections."

    Litwack is a renowned scholar in the field of African-American history and the teacher of one of the most popular classes on the Berkeley campus, an American history survey course for lower division undergraduates that routinely inspires standing ovations from the students. But these days he is best known as an ardent and unrepentant advocate of the printed page, and an energetic critic of the direction in which the UC Berkeley libraries have gone. When I asked him about the notion of "One University, One Library," he suggested the policy be applied to school athletics: One University, One Team. "Why do we have to field nine separate teams?" he joked. "It could cut down on our athletic budget considerably."

    In February, the alumni magazine California Monthly published a stinging essay Litwack had composed as the outgoing chair of the Academic Senate's library committee. Entitled "Has the Library Lost Its Soul?," the article warned that the Berkeley faculty was already finding the library ill-equipped for its research and teaching needs. Some were taking positions at other institutions, he wrote, while others were adding insult to injury by doing their library research at Stanford. ("I loved putting that in the alumni magazine," he told me wickedly. "The response I got was, 'That's because Stanford students don't read, so the books are always there.'")

    Those who disagree with the professor's premise, that a library without books isn't a library at all, have described him as a "book dinosaur," an appellation that fills Litwack with glee. "That's one of the greatest compliments I've ever received!" he told me with a chuckle. "What a tribute! I love dinosaurs anyway, but a book dinosaur!"

    Litwack has snow white hair, a gravelly voice, and the quality of repressed energy you find in a leashed Irish Setter whose curiosity has been aroused by a distant smell. We were talking in his office in Dwinelle Hall, the walls of which are entirely lined with books: leather-bound books, books bound in navy blue cloth covers, paperbacks from the '50s and '60s, government reports bundled together in cardboard holders: Black Rage, A Diary from Dixie, Religion on the American Frontier, Philadelphia Negro, Racial Isolation in the Public Schools, Negro Workaday Songs, The 1961 UN Status Commission on Civil Rights Report. In one corner is a ceiling-high stack of enormous binders bearing labels like New York Daily Times 1865 and the Daily Picayune, part of a collection of newspapers that was discarded by the main library after being converted to microfilm.

    His office library is merely overflow from the much larger and more comprehensive library Litwack keeps at home, a library he first started building in high school. In those days few people had much interest in African-American history, so Litwack was able to buy up Langston Hughes volumes at Goodwill for fifty cents, books that are now worth thousands of dollars. He likes to show his collection to his students, to encourage them to begin libraries of their own. Invariably they ask him, "Have you read


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