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.