In Which the Prof Sees Himself as the Straw Boss at the Buggy Whip Factory.

Library cull. The words sound innocent enough, I guess, with connotations of strengthening the herd, trimming away dead tissue to create a stronger organism. But it’s a different situation in practice.

I found that out today, as Mondoville engaged in a culling process. We’re getting rid of some 25,000 volumes, somewhere between a quarter and a third of our overall holdings. To be fair, something had to be done. Our building is simply inadequate for our collection, many of the books are obsolescent, and many others hadn’t been opened in years — indeed, a colleague of mine found a set of Thomas Hardy’s works, many of which had unopened pages. The library has been held together with spit and baling wire, thanks to an overworked, underpaid, and insanely dedicated staff.

Furthermore, our students are ever less likely to venture into the stacks. They do their research online, relying on the library’s online databases to find articles and such. Students rely on their anthologies and other textbooks, and given that for the average 18-21-year-old , nostalgia=breakfast (to use Harlan Ellison’s equation), they feel little motivation to do the rummaging and browsing that I enjoy. So logically, I understand. Even so, I get the same feeling I get when I think of a parent telling a child that they took Spot to “a nice farmer’s house.” When you’re old enough, you realize Spot probably went to the pound, and nobody’s going to want the old dog, so in a week or so, it’ll be the forever nap.

Consequently, as faculty members wandered through the stacks today marking books for removal, turning them spine-down on the shelves as a designation of condemnation, I realized I was having one of the worst days of my career. My discomfort took several forms. First of all, I thought of how many years of human effort we were discarding. Having written a novel that will likely never see publication, I know how much effort goes into writing even a bad book — how much thought, how much imagination, how many choices to write instead of doing something else. Whatever the writer may have been writing about, the book was a record of what they thought and what they knew; it was an artifact of a voice speaking across gaps of time and space. I know the satisfaction of seeing my work in print, and the comfort of the idea that there’s something that will outlast me, even if the comfort is illusory. I don’t know how many of these voices will be saved in physical or electronic forms at other places, but as I’d look at a book, see it hadn’t been checked out in 40 years, and turn it spine-down, I’d hear another voice being muffled. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that many of the books had a plate with a quote from Milton’s Areopagitica:

[A]s good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.

There was also the pain of opening a book and seeing that it had been donated in someone’s honor or memory. Marking those books for culling had the added dimension of feeling like I was kicking over a tombstone. It may have been a little worse for me, because after my parents’ deaths, several books were donated to other libraries in their honor, and I realized that one day, those memorials will disappear as well. I found myself saying brief prayers for the people named on the book plates, because I knew even their names would soon disappear from one more place.

Finally, there was the sense that I was engaged in a kind of intellectual Black Mass, inverting the sacrament that I was meant to perform. I love my students, but I also love the worlds of literature and ideas; indeed, I show my love to my students by offering them these other things I value so much. These books, these ideas in them, matter so much to me that I’m devoting my life to the business of letting those stories and ideas survive another generation. But instead, I spent today making it that much less likely that a Mondovillian might encounter someone’s story or idea, even through a confluence of idleness and serendipity. Education is meant to help the mind grow, and I see libraries as symbols of the growth that has gone before us. Instead, I spent today making our symbol shrink. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the opposite of what I do.

We’ve been told that Mondoville’s library will become the center of something called a Learning Commons, where students will use contemporary technology to construct knowledge in manners with which they’re familiar. Doubtless there will be an internet cafe as well. But I’m a medievalist, and as I picked through the culls for books I would add to my office library and watched my colleagues do the same (becoming our own “nice farmers”, saving what we thought we could use and could fit on our own departmental shelves), I thought of the climactic scene of the film version of The Name of the Rose, as the heroes try to save a few pieces of wisdom as the library burns, although they know that they’re losing far more, and that some of it is irreplaceable.

I feel like I spent the day scooping out portions of Mondoville’s memory — lobotomizing an educational institution. Maybe what takes its place will be better. At the very least, I’m sure it will be shinier, more comfortable, more contemporary. But I think we’ve spent too much time making our world shiny, comfortable and contemporary. What have we given up in exchange? And if we realize too late that we’ve paid too much, what do we make of that bad bargain?

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Literature, Medievalia. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to In Which the Prof Sees Himself as the Straw Boss at the Buggy Whip Factory.

  1. Jeff says:

    Ralph Ellison spent two miserable years at Tuskegee, a school that wasn’t well-suited to someone with arts-and-humanities interests. (They even closed down the music school shortly after he left.) When Ellison became famous in the early 1950s, he returned to Tuskegee to give some speeches, but nostalgia also prompted him to visit the library, where he pulled favorite books off the shelves and looked at their circulation slips. In most cases, either he or his friend (writer Albert Murray) had been the last students to check out most of the books–nearly 20 years earlier.

    So while I think it’s probably been true for a long time that many students are too lazy or incurious to explore the library and make the most of it, I can only shake my head at schools that dismantle one of the best resources for their most intellectually curious students. Why raze a refuge for future Ralph Ellisons? What a strange, sad race to mediocrity.

  2. Some of the best books of my collection come from university libraries. Of course, you’re talking about culling, whereas I just swiped them.

  3. nightfly says:

    I have to print this for my wife. She wonders why I save “useless junk”? THIS is why. All it takes is just one curious mind out of thousands to see value and act on it.

  4. Pingback: Quid plura? | “Cover my eyes and ears, ’til it all disappears…”

  5. This piece hurts me. I realize that most libraries cull their collections from time to time. But some part of me wants to think that a university libary is a haven where books can go to live, or be forgotten.

    I remember once in graduate school going to the Alderman Library at UVA and finding books that hadn’t been checked out since 1936. I checked them out and held them for a few weeks and then returned them. I hoped that one day someone might come by and be amazed at the stamp reading 1992…

  6. Guy Montag says:

    Two things come to mind: I ‘ve no idea which personally holds the greater meaning, though to be fair they are most likely equals:

    “Behind each of these books, there’s a man. That’s what interests me.”


    “You’ve spent your whole life in front of that family wall. These books are my family.”

    Both courtesy of Bradbury via Truffaut via Oskar Werner, of course…

  7. Pingback: Late to the Party Again… | Professor Mondo

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