There’s nowhere in the world but Yale where students, professors and staff could fight and win a library revolution. While there is much to be grateful for in the administration’s quick response to the “Save Bass” movement, it’s crucial to take a moment to answer lasting criticisms and position the movement going forward.
This Tuesday, I met with University Librarian Susan Gibbons for an hour over lunch. We were able to have a far more productive and nuanced conversation about Bass Library than what has taken place over the internet. We discussed widespread frustrations on specific topics regarding the renovation, such as the need for duplicates in Bass and the overwhelmingly negative feelings toward the “Model Research Center” replacing another 20,000 books for browsing. I was also lucky to listen to her side of the story, removed from the bureaucratic apparati that dictate University policy.
Most shockingly, she revealed that the movement inadvertently riled up several Yale faculty members to the point that they threatened and levied expletives at upper-level library administrators. As the leader of the Bass campaign, I want to first apologize that this behavior arose in connection to our cause. It was never my intention to spark unnecessary hatred toward library staff who believe in their work, even if I disagree with their motives and conclusions. Nor was it ever our plan to conspire with professors at the Jan. 23 library community meeting to sabotage the Bass renovations (this was a real charge leveled against me by top administrators.)
Gibbons expressed serious worries about the morale of her staff and believed the pushback by the Yale community to have reached absurd proportions. I hope that faculty members take that into consideration in further conversations about updating the Bass collection and that more faculty outside of the English and History departments take up an active role in the process.
But while I respect Gibbons’ position, I must disagree with any reduction to the “Save Bass” movement. Any true librarian and leader would be thrilled and encouraged by the shocking rejection of the status quo on technology that happened last week at Yale. No matter how legitimate Nancy Fried Foster’s report on the library is, the results of last week have surpassed the numbers from all “research” on library usage from last year.
Through hundreds of face-to-face discussions with students and professors while petitioning last week, I heard a constant yearning for a print culture among first years and seniors, and STEM and humanities students alike that has not been met by the current tide of “academic consensus” among librarians. It’s my view that the nature of a library — a democratic space shared by many — can’t be “decided” by academic literature. Besides, the very nature of scholarship decries efforts to conclusively declare an objective winner from among conflicting opinions.
Last week, I was surprised to find out that I had been absolutely roasted on “Librarian Twitter” — yes, this is a real internet subculture — on the grounds that I’d denied the “expertise” of current Yale library leadership, acted as an authority on library science scholarship that I am apparently incapable of understanding and used “sexist” rhetoric in my original op-ed. (Of course, if you argue against the policies of leaders who happen to be women, your points are automatically sexist.)
What these comments miss, however, is that I did read the scholarship on the subject — I just fiercely disagree with it. My opinions come from growing up in a librarian’s household, going to libraries every single day as a kid, working in public libraries from elementary school through college and working closely with wonderful librarians in academic environments at Yale.
Meanwhile, Yale students mocked and memed the whole event as a display of wealthy white students’ ignorance of race- and class-based issues on campus, although people of all backgrounds took place in the fight. It’s also worth stressing that I and many other people involved in the movement are low-income students ourselves and have obviously contributed to debates so frequently misunderstood by upper-class Yalies, such as the Student Income Contribution nonsense (here’s a hint: The SIC still doesn’t exist).
The most compelling argument for why a print culture has to be preserved is found in deeper interactions — with texts and in person — that students demonstrated during the the browse-in last week. Books and personal conversations teach us how to pause, to ponder and to dwell. They lay us bare and don’t allow us to hide behind a screen. They don’t give hate-filled comments legitimacy, but force us to reflect and consider ideas with gravitas.
Which is why it should be every librarian’s greatest dream to see 1,000 students showing up to check out books and engage in discussions on the role of libraries on campus. It proves that librarians have the capability and duty to not just be cogs in the machinery of trends and administration but can, when given the chance, be an encouraging check against the worst impulses beset by our addictions to technology. Yale has the chance to turn the seed of hope that unexpectedly flowered on our campus last week into a new (or old) model for education across the world. Professors, students and staff are ready to lead this charge — are you, Yale?
Leland Stange is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs every other Friday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .