In his freshman address this year, Yale President Richard Levin praised the numerous treasures to be found at this University — particularly in the halls of Sterling Memorial Library. He noted that, “As a first-year graduate student studying economic history, I found to my astonishment an abundance of 16th and 17th century pamphlets, published in England, just sitting on the open shelves.” While the idea of easy access to such items seems exciting, it is also remarkably foolish.
Why on earth are such valuable documents available for open circulation?
Our libraries contain incredible artifacts, but due to a bizarre set of historical circumstances, we do not always care for these items as we should. The library has dedicated a tremendous amount of time to online cataloging and to acquisitions, but is this enough? Even though Yale prides itself on its holdings, we unfortunately find ourselves endangering entire shelves of books and artifacts while we focus on expansion.
There are, after all, sections of the stacks where upon opening any book, one finds the pages crumbling. If one brings an antique manuscript to the circulation desk, in the hopes that it will find its way to the Beinecke library, there is the very real fear a student worker will simply slap a bar code on the crumbling paper before shelving it in an obscure corner of floor 5M.
As the library continues to flourish, it must dedicate its resources to preserving its holdings.
Perhaps the root of this nonchalance comes from Yale’s historic disregard for libraries. Indeed, not until the building of Sterling did Yale or its alumni pay much attention to books. According to Wilmarth S. Lewis ’18, the founder of Yale’s Horace Walpole Library in Farmington, there was a time when “most undergraduates never set foot in [the library] during their entire college course.” President Arthur Twining Hadley once quoted a remark from another professor that “the chief educational use of a university library is to lend an occasional book to a professor who does not happen to have that book on his shelf.”
Not a particularly inspiring idea, it seems.
All this began to change in the 1920s thanks to the dedication of professor Chauncey Brewster Tinker. On Alumni Day in 1924, Tinker surprised his audience with the statement that a university was “a group of students, a corps of instructors, and a collection of books; and of these three the most important is the collection of books.”
Motivated by alumni support, Yale gradually began to take an interest in its libraries. But the fight was long and hard for, as Lewis notes in his memoir, “most administrators do not realize that research is dependent upon objects — books, manuscripts, pictures, prints, fossils, bird skins, or whatnot; on collections in short — and administrators naturally dislike outside pressure. They run the place and they do not intend to let anyone else run it.”
Gradually, though, with substantial pressure from alumni, the library system began to take shape. With Tinker as the rather cantankerous curator of rare books, the library system raised funds and rapidly expanded. Soon the University began to take care of its collection and even the occasional undergraduate made his way through the stacks.
Perhaps our initial hesitation to care for our collection has led to a certain nonchalance about the libraries that still permeates the school. Certainly undergraduates finishing last-minute papers are pleased to carry library holdings back to their rooms, where priceless manuscripts can be buried under last week’s keg; but this is clearly a problem.
The University must do all it can not merely to increase access to books, but to be sure that our collection is safe both from the hazard of time and occasionally of students themselves. Student workers should be carefully trained to deal with rare items (some have shown blatant disregard when shelving or stamping), and now that our files are computerized, librarians should have no compulsion about transporting books and manuscripts to the safest locations possible.
This will take a great deal of work, but the long-term results are worth it.
N.B. I was pleased to learn after publishing my last column that Yale Law students will not be interfering with the JAG corps interview process of campus, as I asserted they would. Although I stand by the belief that the military should be allowed to recruit at the law school, I apologize for my error.
Justin Zaremby is a senior in Calhoun College. His column appears regularly on alternate Tuesdays.