U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Pass It On

One of the professors at my school has done a very generous, gracious thing.  Dr. Tim Redman, a scholar of American and Italian literature at the University of Texas at Dallas, has begun donating his own books to the university’s library.  Here is a snippet from a the university’s news release about the gift:

Redman intends to include a clear provision in his will for the donation to the library. He is selecting the books by placing a bookplate in the front of each that states the volume is intended to be given to McDermott Library….The books will be transferred to the library as they become less immediately relevant to his research.

I find this so admirable.  I can’t think of anything more difficult for a scholar to do than to let go of his or her most important books.  Happily, Prof. Redman has made it clear that he is in good health and is not expecting to part from his entire library any time soon.  But to take an important text or reference work from one’s own bookshelves and give it to the library because someone needs it now more than you do — that strikes me as a real sacrifice for the sake of future generations of scholars.

It also strikes me as a very wise decision, especially if you happen to worry, as I often do, about the fate of the codex, a robust and reliable technology that can certainly be enhanced and supplemented by digital approaches, but should not be abandoned.  (I have written about this at some length here, with a follow-up post here.)  Whatever specific provisions are stipulated for this donation, I would assume that designating particular volumes as gifts to the library might be a way of assuring that the books themselves — the physical objects — remain accessible to the public.

Of course books take up space, and keeping them in good condition and good order takes funding.  And that’s something that many public libraries, whether they are state college or university libraries or municipal libraries, don’t have.  When libraries don’t have the funds or the space or the personnel to curate their collection while also adding to it, they must discard books.

Many of us have probably enjoyed the experience of going through a library sale table and finding a useful text, in hardback and with protective covers, for just a dollar.  A lot of those discards probably end up as donations to social service agencies or literacy programs.  But a lot of them are picked up by used booksellers who offer their inventory via the internet to a worldwide market.

This is a transfer of wealth — material wealth, and a wealth of knowledge — from the public sphere to the private sphere.  And to the extent that I buy used books, I participate in this re-appropriation of public resources.  Indeed, I could not acquire many of the texts on my reading list if it were not for the used book market. So on my own shelves are books stamped “discard” from taxpayer supported libraries across the country:  Cedar Park Public Library, Chula Vista Public Library, San Diego Public Library, Akron-Summit County Public Library.

But of all the library discards I’ve bought online for a song (two, three, four dollars at most) this one brought home to me — literally — the abysmal state of higher education in my beloved home state:


 (Kerr, Clark. The Uses of the University. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1963.)

I don’t fault the librarians at Yuba College for selecting this book for discard.  It doesn’t look like it has ever been checked out or even read.  Not one time.  And I would guess they are strapped for funds and strapped for space, compelled to make unpleasant choices based on the awful calculus of what knowledge is worth the money it takes to keep it available.  But I wonder: what funds do they have available to fill that shelf space with something else?  How will they replace The Uses of the University in their collection?  What will they offer instead?  Given the state of higher education funding in California, how long will they be able to offer anything at all?

I am so heartened by the gift that Prof. Redman has made to the library at my public university, and I hope other scholars here and elsewhere will follow his example.  In the meantime, if you profs happen to get a free extra copy of a book you already have, don’t let those copies stack up in your office and gather dust.  There’s got to be a student or a junior colleague who needs just such a book.  Pass it  on, pay it forward.  Keep the light of scholarship burning for another generation, but do it old school.  No technology of literacy can hold a candle to the codex, the user interface you can power for a thousand years by nothing more than candlelight.

And you taxpayers who don’t like the thought of perfectly good library books, bought and paid for by you and your fellow citizens, ending up on the used book market, to be replaced by digital texts if they are replaced at all — well, I wish I knew what to tell you.  All I know is that the public university system in my home state, once the envy of the world, is crumbling into ruin.  I guess nobody reads Clark Kerr any more.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. yes and yes.

    even elite universities are cutting their libraries down. i’ve been told, although this is no more than hearsay, that cornell’s libraries sold off–without faculty consultation–a substantial collection of 19th century medical texts. because, you know, that stuff’s obsolete.

    on a related note: http://www.theverge.com/2013/1/13/3872478/americas-first-bookless-public-library-will-look-like-an-apple-store

    see especially: “the potential cost-savings for digital-only libraries in the long run” — really??

  2. The core of the American Studies collection at the library of the University of Leipzig (where I taught on a Fulbright in 2007-8) was donated by Frank Freidel, biographer of FDR and history professor at Harvard. Although the Leipzig American Studies Institute is quite old, when Leipzig was still in the DDR, its American Studies library collection was limited. Freidel passed away in the early 1990s and his books arrived at Leipzig in the late 1990s. Gifts like this really are of astounding importance!

  3. At my institution’s library, half of the books on the third floor, which shelves history, were removed to the basement (later to be sold off, I’m sure). This was done in order to make space for what amounts to a student lounge, with tables where students can work on group projects. A librarian sold this to the history department as “best practices.” Nothing like a university library catering to the anti-intellectual impulses of young people and calling it “best practices.”

  4. Well, that’s a real shame — but I don’t think librarians are the problem. Conservators by profession and probably conservative by temperament, librarians would probably want to keep all the books. The customer service / college-as-resort model is coming from administrators, surely.

    But “it’s the administrators,” while it can be true, can also be a way of throwing one’s hands up in helplessness. “What can you do?” This is part of why I have been so keyed in to the causal language historians use in writing about the Progressives — it’s like we’re all being chewed up by the gears of Modernization as we write about it. We know what to blame — the system, the org chart, the structure — but we don’t know who to blame, or who to ask for help, or what to ask for. And everyone in the system who has a little bit of agency can always point to five or six different reasons why they can’t use it, or why it won’t do any good to try. Learning how to reconcile passionate and principled engagement with a sense of helpless resignation — that’s probably the real aim of professionalization in grad school.

    But on that matter of agency, I’m surprised that no one has as yet called me out for those last two paragraphs, and especially for the last one.

    As individuals, I hope we will be as generous as we can be with our books. “Freely you have received; freely give.” I have plenty of books on my shelves that have been passed on to me by others, and I have already started to do the same for colleagues who can use some text that I have but am not using.

    But, to borrow a page from dewey-eyed Dewey, this is one of those social problems that requires a collaborative and creative democratic solution. And yes, the modernization of the American university, its rationalized efficiency and its burgeoning bureaucratic bloat, is the other side of Dewey’s coin, and Clark Kerr’s too.

    Neither numismatists nor necromancers are needed here. But academics could start by being a big pain in the ass about what is happening to books, and the space devoted to them. Material substantiality is a marker and measure of value. The dematerialization and disappearing of texts to “make room” — this represents a liquidation of value that is then “invested” in student amenities, athletic facilities, or fancy new buildings for schools/majors/disciplines that pay.

    I have stabled my Garrisonian high horse, but I can hear him stamp and neigh in his stall…

  5. P.S. Don’t get my wrong, I don’t blame librarians–I love most, including the subject specialist at my institution’s library, who is a true intellectual (yes, I am using that term normatively). The one in particular I mention in my comment above was coming more from an administrator position.

  6. I would *love* to pass along my books, but I fear they would be useless to anyone but me. I’m an an *unapologetic* marker of books. I write on almost every page I read—as well as in the blank front and back cover pages. Too bad there isn’t a service out there that erases all of your markings so that your book(s) could in fact be donated. – TL

  7. Oh, you should see my books. Or, if you’re a bibliophile, I guess you shouldn’t. I do nothing by halves, and I practically deface my reading list books with marginalia. But worse is the dog-earing. I double- and triple-dog-ear pages. Sometimes, if it’s real important, I fold the page almost in half diagonally — like if I want to find THE passage I want to hash out during discussion. My profs and colleagues have laughed out loud at the sight of some of my books. “If everything is important, nothing is.” True, true. So these books would be useless to a library, and to anyone who is hopelessly distracted by marginalia. However, my handwriting is so nearly illegible that it’s almost moot. It just looks like someone took a pencil and drew some jittery lines in the margins, with the occasional swear word — usually in all caps — thrown in for good measure. If a book ain’t worth cussing at once in a while — either out of irritation or out of admiration — then it might not be worth reading.

    • I’m with you on most everything except that, for some reason, I *never* fold or dog-ear my pages. Don’t know why, since I’m so liberal with my penciling. Hmm…I have, however, had family members and colleagues turn down loans of my books because my note-taking and marginalia are too distracting. Oh well. My books, like yours I suspect, are both nearly diaries and nearly first drafts of my reviews.

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