Are Libraries “Vanity Projects”?

Recently, Greta Van Susteren, formerly of Fox News, used her Twitter account to provoke controversy and remind viewers she’s not done yet.  She tweeted, “Colleges should stop building vanity projects like huge libraries and billing students-full libraries are on our smartphones!”  This seemed straightforward enough in that she was ranting against new library buildings.  After the inevitable twitterstorm, she, as those in the news when caught with an inconvenient comment like to say, “clarified” in this manner: “You all missed the point: I am not against libraries but building most new bldgs.[sic]; use what we have and not pass new costs to students.”

The story doesn’t end there as she continued to add and clarify and obfuscate.  As one who has, for the last sixteen years, been trying to usher in a new library building on this campus, it might be helpful to try to explain to Ms. Van Susteren—and those who agree with here—why new library buildings are not vanity projects.

Ms. Van Susteren’s comments are like deja vu all over again.  In the early 2000s when we began to discuss in earnest with our legislature a new library building, one opponent said, much like Ms. Van Susteren, that we didn’t need new libraries because now we could simply ‘zap’ books from one place to another.  As this was during the infancy of the Web, I replied with an article trying to explain the differences.

The article proved so popular that I followed it up with a shorthand poster.  An editor asked for a fuller discussion and so I supplied it.  As time went on and the Web matured, it became important to update the article, the poster and the book, which I did.  Of course, not everyone agreed then or agrees now, and obviously Ms. van Susteren doesn’t.

So, are libraries vanity projects, and smartphones all we need?

I doubt Ms. Van Susteren has been around many college or university libraries recently.  With rare exception, these buildings are twenty, thirty and, as in our case, more than forty years old.  It’s important to understand that age and why it’s important.  In the case of a warehouse, a forty-year-old building housing only spare parts might not be too old.  But in library-years, so to speak, a forty-year-old building is ancient.  I like to remind people that in 1980, businesses spent zero dollars on automation.  By 1990, that cost had soared to over one billion annually.  This factoid is important because those are roughly the same years that libraries experienced both a phenomenal rise in costs and an equal rise in the increase in computers in their buildings.

The Web has certainly matured and has a great deal to offer. It’s perfect for looking up a forgotten fact, a person of note, or what is generally referred to as common knowledge (e.g. the distance the earth is from the sun).  But even granting this no small glory, it has precious little in the way of peer reviewed, scholarly articles, Google Scholar and Google Books notwithstanding.  While open access may well change all that (and libraries are embracing OA as fast as they can), no one person can afford to access scholarly materials outside of an academic library.  Moreover, while most things are going digital and thus reducing the number every year, there is still an enormous amount of print materials that libraries provide that are not on the Web for whatever reason.

Meanwhile, libraries in forty year old buildings are trying to update their spaces for 21st century students.  Doing so does not come cheap.  I imagine that if Ms. Van Susteren were asked to work the news in a forty year old television studio, she would laugh hysterically.  It couldn’t be done, she’d argue.  Likewise, trying to repurpose library buildings built with the mentality then governing library architecture forty years ago, is no easy task, and neither is it cheap.  When we repurposed the main floor alone in Dacus, the cost was just short of one million dollars.

I would be the last person to argue that higher education needs to get any more costly.  I have argued against rising costs in other places, criticizing what at some institutions certainly appear to be extravagances in dorms, centers, and athletic complexes.  But the library, the cynosure of intellectual activity on campus (or so it is often said), is surely one place that should be funded reasonably well, both in terms of materials and surroundings.  The vanity, if present at all, is human knowledge.

Smart devices are certainly helpful.  But to those just getting used to research at a much higher level than high school, something more than a smart device that can find all sorts of both good and dubious materials in nanoseconds is needed.  Students are going to have to resort to the library to get a really solid education.  Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m no Luddite, nor do I have anything but awe and admiration for the Web.  But arguing that we can dispense with libraries because we can always check our phones is either forcibly naive, grossly simplistic, or both.  To argue that libraries are unnecessary because we have smartphones is as silly as arguing that feet are unnecessary because we now have shoes.

Do we think libraries are vainglorious today because all our ideas are only 140 characters long or can be contained in our pockets?  I hope not.  If that’s all our culture is then it may not deserve something as grand as a library after all.  No, I believe our culture is more significant than that and too big to fit in a mobile device — nor should it.  It needs room to spread out because it captures the collective of our civilization.  Someday we may be ready to jettison the Patience and Fortitude of our ancestors, the so-called library-lions that guard the entrance to the New York Public Library.  When we do, let’s choose a worthy equal, not a popular but weak ersatz.  Some say it takes a village to raise a child.  If true, then surely it takes more than a text or two, more than a bit or a byte, to preserve our education, our culture, our civilization.

Perhaps it hurts our narcissistic Web-based age to hear it, but libraries have never been about you or me, about only books and magazines exclusively.  What has made libraries last until now, and I hope forever, is that they are about us: the very best of us, when we shine in our shared greatness in the creation, pursuit, and acquisition of knowledge.


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