Transcript of the Libraries Committee Hearing of November 18, 1997
Prof. William Harris (History), chairman of the Senate Libraries Committee, began the hearing at about 5:15 pm in 301 Uris. About 50 people were present during the meeting.
William Harris: [Tape starts shortly after the start] ... If they are willing, we will ask questions of people who offer comment. But apart from that I think this will be quite informal, and we'll just see what people have to say on the subject of the current state of the libraries and of ACIS.
The current situation is this: the libraries and ACIS were visited in March by an external review committee, which duly produced a report. Copies of it, by the way, are just outside. I think anyone who hasn't seen it is welcome to look at it. In fact, it serves as the basis for participating in this meeting, I think. I'm not quite sure what to call this report--we could call it the Frye report, after the person who convened the committee, but in any case the external or outside report. This report praised the library and ACIS staff in robust terms, and criticized the failings of the system in even more robust terms, and traced the problems of the system mostly back to the budgetary problems and the budget cuts that had been imposed from above over the last several years. The report did not point the finger at any particular administrator, but I think pointed the finger pretty effectively at the administration in general.
The Provost, I must say, who appointed this committee, has reacted quite attentively to its report, and has been speaking to various groups. Our committee met with him on October 27. The library staff, together with the Provost, have now produced an action plan in response to the report. The action plan is 75 pages in length, and has supporting material as well, and I cannot distribute it to you. Why not? Because this is Columbia. This document, as far as I know, has only been seen by its authors, by department chairs and, I must say, by me. I don't think it's even been distributed to members of the committee yet. I must say the administration's secretiveness about its plans on this subject is quite bizarre. One would have thought that in New York in 1997 the administration would be attentive to competent public relations. On the contrary, it seems to me extremely bad public relations.
I should say something about the Frye report. I'm not going to describe its contents in detail. As I say, it was positive in its remarks about the library staff, and I don't want it to be the burden of this meeting that the library staff is not doing its job. On the contrary, they are working in extremely adverse circumstances, with quite inadequate budgets for various purposes. While there may be things that could be improved in various respects, this is not a complaint meeting about librarians.
The substance of the Frye report's 13 recommendations could be divided into two: the first recommendation is essentially that the administration should show more love for the library--I think they used the words "symbolic gesture"--and should show some sign of genuine concern for rescuing the library system from its undoubted problems. I must say, the search for this symbolic gesture has so far been entirely futile. The president of the university, I think it's safe to say, is not terribly interested in this problem. The provost, as I've indicated, has been showing some concern. The vice president for Arts and Sciences has not shown any emotion on this subject either. The symbolic gesture, which, I agree with the Frye committee, would be very valuable, has not so far been forthcoming. It's perhaps not in the style of President Rupp to perform such a gesture, and he might indeed regard it as a completely empty thing to do.
That's one aspect of the matter. The practical aspect of the matter is a series of recommendations which the Frye committee put together. I won't try to summarize them now. You can all look at the document. Almost all of these recommendations require funds. Actually, one of them concerns raising funds, and I might read it to you because it's only three lines long. It's something that will certainly cause a good deal of moaning and groaning if it's put into effect (this is not characteristic of these recommendations): "Consideration should be given to instituting or increasing some special fees for academic computing access (as mentioned in the observations) as a means of increasing resources to support the costs of information technology." Those costs are real and large. The usefulness of that recommendation is something that perhaps we all ought to discuss.
Is the action plan going to be followed, and is it adequate? I don't want to say much about that now. I'm still absorbing the 75-page document myself. There are several people here who have seen it, who may want to say something about that. It's fairly plain that it makes a serious attempt to deal with some of the issues, but not all of them. Its tone is a bit complacent, to my mind. Some of the issues that need to be dealt with are not dealt with adequately or at all in this document. I think that one thing which does need to be emphasized is that the budgetary increases which are required are going to be continuous ones. The action plan talks about budgetary increases for next year. I'm asking myself whether I'm allowed to tell you what the action plan has to say in that particular respect. Let's say, a sizable increase in the operating budget is projected for next year. What's needed, though, I think, in order to make up for the decline in the real budget over the last few years is a series of real increases in the operating budget over the next few years.
And that brings me to my last point. That is that this is the beginning of a long campaign. Perhaps I should say a continuation of a long campaign. Some of you know that we've been talking about this off and on for a very long time. It's only going to be by continued pressure on the administration over a number of years that the problems of the library system and of ACIS are going to be solved. Well, it's partly in order to continue that pressure that we've organized this meeting--also, of course, to gain some further notion of what the problems are, possibly even what the solutions are.
So I'm now going to open the floor to anyone's comments. You shouldn't worry too much about whether you're being relevant, because it's precisely to find out what people are concerned about that we have called this meeting. I think the first person on the list is Prof. Von Hagen.
Prof. Mark von Hagen (History), director of the Harriman Institute: I want to speak to two specific issues. One is the grave condition of the general collections in Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies. And secondly, more specifically, the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library's Bakmeteff Collection, which is also in grave condition. As part of the Harriman Institute's funding and operations, we have a Title VI Department of Education National Resource Center. ... Ours is called the Title VI National Resource Center for Eastern Europe, Eurasia, and Russia. We are obliged to conduct outside reviews of our operations every two years in order to renew our grants. We haven't lost our grants since they've been instituted.
I just want to read some selections from the report on the library that an outside committee made, and which only confirms what we already knew, but an outside source makes it somehow more authoritative. And this did go to all necessary administrative officials, so this is nothing that they haven't heard before. "In the face of a discontinuity of sources in the region [for which we try to keep up-to-date collections], the emergence of many hard-to-obtain publications, and rising prices resulting from the reduction of government subsidies" and the end of the state's centralized system of acquisitions and publishing in the former Soviet bloc, it should have been necessary to raise resources for this region. Instead, resources have been cut drastically. We are now so underfunded that we spend about a tenth of what Harvard or Yale spends for similar collections. And again the committee, after interviewing faculty and staff, came to the same conclusion: the staff of the library impressed the committee with their "dedication and professionalism"--indeed, their heroism--"the only reason that Columbia has any right to claim for itself the privilege of being a guardian of these rare collections which are part of the nation's cultural endowment. "The library, both for the Bakmeteff Collections and the general staff,
is now dangerously understaffed; in one estimate it has one-tenth of the personnel employed by the peer institutions.The scandalous neglect of the Bakmeteff archive is emblematic of the whole situation. There is a need for more than one full-time person to manage one of the world's leading Russian and Central European archives. In general, the library resources are a regional, national, and international resource which Columbia is mismanaging. The committee feels that if the University is unwilling to handle the collection in a manner that recognizes its value, it should consider sending the materials elsewhere.
So that is a pretty grave indictment. I should say that the Bakmeteff business has another piece of it. The Bakmeteff Collection and the curator position--we are now undertaking a search to replace our previous curator, who left partly out of frustration with the demands made on her time and the resources available to meet those demands. The Bakmeteff's curator's position comes out of a Bakmeteff endowment, which was established in honor of and on the bequest of an engineering professor, a Russian imigri who left money to support not only engineering studies but Russian studies. There was supposed to be a faculty committee to oversee the apportionment of the endowment's income. That faculty committee doesn't exist. We can't get any idea from the administration of the budget of this endowment. Instead of that we get constant cutbacks in everything the endowment is supposed to be funding, despite the fact that the endowment was supposed to support incremental staffing rather than substitution. We are persuaded that the University is using it to substitute for existing staff positions. That's all I have to say on this particular issue, and I'd be happy to answer any questions insofar as I can.
Colleen Mulleedy, vice president of Columbia College Student Council: I worked in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library for several years. It's absolutely frightening. Not only Bakmeteff, but much of the collection there is in such a state. We've never had people or enough money to do anything with it. It's just frightening to see the amazing wealth of information just deteriorating, falling apart. Scholars who come to study this information can't get a hold of it, because it's been lost somewhere in the stacks. So I just want to echo that concern. It's frightening.
Mark von Hagen: We're now looking for a curator, as I mentioned. We're requiring an M.L.S. or equivalent, knowledge of at least three Eastern European languages, and we're promising to pay $34,000 a year (laughter). And nonetheless we have 20 applications (laughter). But I don't know how long they're going to last.
William Harris: How would you estimate the shortfall in staffing? How many people are lacking, so to speak?
Colleen Mulleedy: I think it's abysmal. The fact is that I was highly unqualified, as an undergraduate student, to be given the projects that I was given there. It was a lovely opportunity for me, but the fact that I am allowed to work on an international database, with medieval manuscripts--that scares me. I shouldn't be allowed to do something like that. The staff are ridiculously dedicated, but they're at their wits' end, as far as trying to stretch budgets with the amount of money they have to spend there to maintain the collections.
William Harris: What do you think is the right strategy to follow?
Mark von Hagen: There is another piece of it, which is not purely budgetary, but has to do with administrative decisions on time allotment. One of the reasons our previous curator left was because she was asked to do two days a week of general reference desk work, when not only did she have to maintain and preserve the collection, but she was supposed to be developing the collection at a time in the Soviet Union when she had to think about development. She had absolutely no time for development. It was hard enough to keep up with collection maintenance. So we have already squeezed out of the library administration that the new person will do four days a week on Bakmeteff, only one day on the general reference desk. But even that's still woefully inadequate, and hardly in tune with the Bakmeteff endowment terms, which is paying for the position, sort of.
William Harris: Almost the only way one can get certain things done at Columbia is by embarrassing the administration. ...
Mark von Hagen: And saying Harvard will take our collection. We tried that.
William Harris: They hate this, of course, but it sometimes works. But that's been tried already?
Mark von Hagen: We did get the number of days to be devoted to the collection raised from three to four. So maybe we can get someone so desperate that they're willing to devote four days to the job instead of five.
Someone in the audience: Where in the administration is the Bakmeteff endowment administered, the Provost's Office?
Mark von Hagen: The Provost's office. A stone wall, as far as this is concerned.
William Harris: Well, thanks very much. Amy, would you come up?
Amy Heinrich, director of the Starr East Asian Library: I'm one of the ridiculously dedicated heroes who help maintain the collections. There's no question that a good deal in the external review was very gratifying to read, including how dedicated we are and what superb collections we have. And there's no question that we are understaffed. When I was a graduate student using resources of the library where I'm working now, we had 25 full-time staff members; now we have 19. Usage of the library has probably more than doubled since then, and we are providing help to users in many more areas than we ever did before, with all the digital information that we have to run down and teach about.
What I think it's really important to understand in relation to this external review and in relation to the difficulties that the library is facing is that it's not an us and them, it's not a faculty vs. libraries, or administration vs. libraries. This is part of a shared educational endeavor, and none of this really happened overnight. We need a great deal of support, but we also need cooperation. We need to have it understood that if the pie is getting cut up, it's not us or them. It's not the libraries or the schools that are getting money. It is the resources and the educational mission of the university. And I think that's the symbolic gesture that I would like to see, not just from the administration but from the community. It's perfectly clear that we, the librarians, can't do our best work without the cooperation of the community we serve, and I think it is just as obvious that the faculty and students can't do their best work without our cooperation. And I would very much like to see whatever the pressure is be toward the educational mission of the libraries and that we fulfill it in cooperation with the people that we work with.
Angela Giral, director of Avery Architecture and Fine Arts Library: Actually I was hoping to hear more faculty. As the second librarian in a row, I second Amy's plea for cooperation. Unfortunately, the library I direct can't tell the administration we are losing to Harvard or Yale, because we are reputedly the best, not only in this country or this continent, but in the world. Visiting scholars from all over the world tell me the collection is superb. We have problems with the books, with preservation--again, the same story Amy has told of reduced staff because of reduced budgets. These reductions--or at least the public presentation of them--are because the library is viewed as being part of central administration, in fact as one of the largest parts of central administration. And a few years ago the faculty complained about the growth of central administration, and the result was cuts in the budget for administration in order to leave more for faculty, for teaching. The libraries, being the largest part of central administration, got cut.... Because of our mission, our devotion, our heroism, whatever (maybe our shyness?), we somehow hid these cuts from the rest of you. We were bleeding in the background, until the blood began to seep under the doors. And then you noticed. The stacks became a mess. We were cutting staff, and in fact when some of us met with the external review committee, they asked us, "There must be something you're not doing. What is it you're not doing?" And almost unanimously we said, "Well, the stacks. We've neglected the stacks; we've neglected preservation," which is indeed reflected in the report.
It is not new. This afternoon I had a visit from my predecessor [Adolf K. Placzek]. Whenever I'm depressed he reminds me that in the '50s the University received a very substantial endowment from a faculty member, Herbert Van Buren Magonigle, for the use of Avery Library. And he was very excited when he heard about it because the terms of the gift said it was to be used at the discretion of the Avery librarian. However, he was told at the time that the discretion of the president of the university overruled the discretion of the Avery librarian, and from that point it was to be substitutional funding for staff. Therefore, a large part of this continues to be used to pay for staff. Another large part comes from the Getty support of the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals. It's lovely to have all these things, but in a way they were meant to be gravy on a substantial cake. Instead, they are eroding.
At the same time, I mentioned that it is reputedly the best collection in the world--scholars keep telling me that--in spite of two recent upstarts, the Getty Center about to open in Los Angeles and the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal, put together with funds from Seagram's, who go around buying the stock of entire antiquarian dealers to put their collections together. In spite of that, faculty who have used all of them say, "But they don't have 19th-century periodicals, they don't have ... [other valuable collections]." So they keep coming from all over the world, and it gets more and more embarrassing to walk on the carpet which we could not replace because Avery was scheduled for HVAC two summers ago. ... And I was dismayed when I read ... that it was now scheduled for 2000. This may be a comparatively minor thing, but it is part of that symbolic role of appreciation of what the libraries contribute to the educational mission. I had told myself I was not going to complain, but that's what I ended up doing.
William Harris: Would you like to say a bit more about the scale of the preservation problem? One issue ... that was not addressed in the Frye report or, I think, in the action plan either, at least not in an adequate way, is the issue of preservation. I'm not just thinking about your library, but about the whole system. When I came here I was amazed by the quantity of 19th-century German dissertations one could find in the Columbia library. Well, most of them have turned to dust in the time I've been here. I've got some of them unbeknownst to the library in my office. When I retire I'm going to pass them on to whoever looks like serving them best, and right now that will not be Butler Library, I can assert that. That was a wonderful collection. ... But there is a stupendous problem of conservation.
Angela Giral: You bet it is, and I could blame the Germans and everybody else who decided to use wood-pulp paper in the early 19th century, which disintegrates rapidly just by the effect of atmospheric conditions. Unfortunately, it disintegrates more rapidly in New York than it does in California. We found out when we arranged a preservation effort for some journals. Some of our journals were in such deplorable condition that they could not be microfilmed. So we requested the volumes from Stanford and Berkeley, and we were amazed when they arrived because they were in much better condition. The extreme heat, the soot combined chemically with the properties of this wood-pulp paper to make them disintegrate without being touched on the shelves. ... We are doing our best, and I must say that's an area where I think Columbia hafs taken extraordinary measures. ... in terms of exploring the possibility of new technologies. In fact, I participated in a study for the Commission on Preservation and Access, which was chaired by Prof. Richard Brilliant of the art history department, about problems in the preservation of illustrated texts, beyond art history. Biology, medicine, all kinds of disciplines have the problem of how we should preserve, with existing technologies, the illustrated text, and the importance of the image in the context of the text, etc. It's just a horrendous problem, and it's worse in New York.
William Harris: If we wanted to do every necessary thing to preserve the books (this is a question which goes beyond Avery and includes the rest of the system as well), can you estimate how much it would cost, and how many people it would require, or is that something impossible to quantify?
Angela Giral: I cannot give you an estimate from the top of my head, but it's in the millions. It also may have to do with segregating parts of the collection. You might want to use freezing ... for those German theses; your office is probably too hot, and when it's winter, too dry. There are certain things that you need to do to preserve those artifacts. ... If they're not illustrated texts, there is technology for preserving the intellectual content as the object disintegrates, and microfilming preserves it in another medium. One can put a copy of the film in archival storage, from which other copies can be made. There are national and international bibliographic networks one can put it on and notice that it's been done, so there's no duplication between Columbia and other institutions. That's a procedure that works fairly well for preserving texts. It's illustrated texts that still have problems. It's not fun to use microfilm. I don't like it myself.
Unfortunately, another issue is that the academic marketplace has never been strong enough for either photocopiers or microfilm readers to be developed in a way that is optimal, because however many of us there are, there are not enough. It's the mass market--it's when business is interested in a particular kind of machinery that it gets developed and the price comes down.
Sen. Joan Ferrante: It's better to have something on microfilm than not to have it at all. Is there any regular preservation program in progress?.
Angela Giral: There is a regular program in progress, and Columbia is a leader, with multimillion dollar grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Prof. Roger Bagnall (Classics and History): It is true that the Frye report and the action plan both say essentially nothing about preservation as such, but there are a couple of elements in there that are actually very important for preservation. One of them is the finishing of the renovation of Butler, which with better climate controls will certainly have a profound impact; the other is building a holding repository, where, in fact, something close to optimum conditions can be provided. ...
Mark Anderson, Associate Professor of German Languages: Is there a timetable for stacks renovation? Is there any way of accelerating the timetable? When will it be done?
William Harris: Elaine, I don't want to put you on the spot about anything at this meeting. Do you want to respond?
Elaine Sloan, Vice President for Libraries and Information Systems: The action plan outlines three options for finishing the renovation by 2004.
Prof. Madeleine Zelin (East Asian Languages and Cultures): ...This is a question that arises from my own ignorance from my experience long, long ago on the Strategic Planning Commission, when we first started to examine every aspect of the University, and one of the aspects was the libraries. And it appeared to me at that time--I may have misunderstood--that there was a very peculiar allocation of library costs to various units of the university. The way this report presents it, it sounds as if the costs of the university come out of central administration. But it was my understanding that although the staff of the libraries are counted against the staff of the central administration, the costs of buying books and upkeep and so on of the libraries are allocated to different units, so some portion of it is allocated to Arts and Sciences, some portion is allocated to the Business School. At the time of the Strategic Planning Commission reports, one of the interesting things we discovered was that virtually nothing was allocated to the Business School because it was assumed that business students didn't read books, which was bizarre. So a large portion of library costs was allocated to the Arts and Sciences. Is this still the case?
Elaine Sloan: Funding for central services comes from two sources: the central endowment and taxes on schools. There is a formula for taxing schools, but I do not believe that the Business School was taxed virtually nothing.
Madeleine Zelin: I think part of the point I'm making is that there ought to be an examination of how the libraries are paid for. Being from the Arts and Sciences, of course, I have certain interests, but if indeed there are opportunities for apportioning funds differently so that a greater share of funds comes from places where the libraries can get the funding resources that are necessary, that would be one obvious move that needs to be made. It's a university-wide resource that I think is disproportionately charged to the Arts and Sciences, or at least was at that time.
William Harris: We will pursue this matter.
Madeleine Zelin: The other point is the general issue of fundraising and substitutionality. This has come up again and again, and the issue has been discussed in terms of previous fundraising, and the degree to which donors have thought that they were helping develop this marvelous resource, and it ends up being socialized in the entire university's budget. But certainly I think that if we're going to be successful in fundraising for the libraries system in the future or indeed for anything in the future, there have to be general discussions with the central administration about how certain kinds of gifts can be protected from substitutionality, or at least partially protected from it. I think it's become very public that this goes on, and it may be a problem for people who want to give money to Columbia.
Prof. Suzanne Said (Classics): I just want to make comments as a user. I think what is most disturbing for the user is of course not at all the librarians. I can lavish praise on them. But what is the main problem is, first, the stacks. Second, for instance, for a place like Avery, where you have no possibility of borrowing books, the number of xerox machines is absolutely ridiculous. People are fuming about it. And also the problem of the maintenance of the old collections, such as ... the German dissertations (we are one of the few places in the United States where we can get them), and they are in such a state that when you open the boxes everything is falling apart. A lot of them are not even properly catalogued--that is, we don't know exactly what we have--and sometimes by opening the box you just find something you are not looking for. So I think that's quite important. Also, there is the problem of the periodicals, which I think is the problem especially of the circulation of the periodicals. Because as Columbia in some fields has nearly the only acceptable library in New York, you have a lot of people coming there and borrowing, which means that a lot of the time you don't find the proper issue you are looking for. So it would be probably very useful ... to have a large part of the periodicals noncirculating as is being done [in some other places] and that would be, I think, quite useful. These are just practical remarks. But I think every one of us who is using the library heavily can make them. And I was very surprised in reading the report to see not only that there is a lot of cynicism among the faculty, but apparently very few of us are using the library, which I find very bizarre.
William Harris: Thank you very much. Roger Bagnall, would you say something more? Perhaps you could comment on the action plan.
Roger Bagnall: I first wanted to make one comment about the taxation system. At the time of the Strategic Planning Commission, the figures that we were given did not in fact show how the libraries were funded or represent a taxation system. All those figures were purely hypothetical allocations that reflect the system in place. The budget system at that time did not work that way. All the money came in from the schools to the center, and then schools got budgets. There wasn't any formal treaty governing taxation and so forth. That changed when the Full Responsibility Model was put in place in somewhat modified fashion after that. I have not seen the final formulas for user allocation when that was put in in 1993-94 or 1994-95. So that's a relatively recent system. ...
The action plan--I don't want to do as it were a strip tease with a document that hasn't been released. A lot of it deals with ACIS, and not with the libraries. The conversation this evening has so far been all about libraries. And in fact the bulk of the current operating money in the action plan is added to the ACIS budget, not the libraries budget, given a lot of problems the Frye report singles out in terms of compensation and staffing in ACIS. In the libraries part, the actual addition to the operating budget is relatively modest. It has to do above all with the stacks problem, with getting a grip on shelving and getting the stacks back in some kind of order, so that books can be found if they're there. Right now, Suzanne is right, a lot of the books are out a lot of the time. But you can't even find the ones that are there, because they're not where they ought to be. That is a major focus of the action plan, and rightly so.
What the Frye report points to that isn't in the action plan is the staffing of the Butler reading room as the renovation takes place, except to the extent there's support for the technological side. No support on the actual, old-fashioned book side is provided in the action plan, nor is it conceivable with the level of staffing we have in the building, where we can't even keep the reference desk open a large part of the time because there aren't enough reference librarians, just as the shortage of reference librarians means that the poor people who are specialists have to spend time at the desk--because somebody has to staff the desk. That is, after all, the first thing to be done in an organization like that.
But what's also not in the action plan, and I think is pretty much missing from the Frye report, is a sense of the general understanding of the whole enterprise that has resulted from the budgetary attrition. It's not a matter of only a few years now, but really it goes back a decade, beginning seriously in a way partly by cuts in nominal dollars, and partly by budget complications that failed to keep pace with inflation in the costs of standard materials. And the fact that we simply don't have as many bibliographers to cover the terrain of learning as comparable institutions is a basic fact that is completely ignored by the Frye report. And the shortages that we have in a lot of the major research components of the branch system, in places like Avery,... Starr--that also is pretty much a hard fact--that they once had a third more staff than they do now. It is true that some of those staff are not needed today because of changes in the way technical services are operated. Some of those were public service jobs. Public service jobs are basically about as labor intensive as they ever were. Those needs have not gone away. And the action plan isn't going to get at that problem [a brief interruption while the tape is turned over] ... back to anything like a tolerable state of library services.
William Harris: Thank you very much. ... Yes, I'm afraid it's difficult to resist the impression that the action plan is a defensive operation. The Provost has appointed a committee which he is going to chair himself, of which you and I and perhaps some other people here are members, and for which no meeting has been scheduled yet.
Roger Bagnall: That was a symbolic gesture.
William Harris: It turned out to be as empty a symbolic gesture as it could possibly be, I think. There are already plenty of committees dealing with these matters. More committees are not the answer to anything, I think. I'm afraid that to speak bluntly we suffered all the way through this from the fact that none of the relevant leaders of the university are humanistic scholars. And their interest is in preventing public relations disasters, and I must say also in the very necessary business of keeping the library system technologically up to date.
What will distinguish university libraries in the 21st century will probably not be who is technologically up to date and who is not, because all the leading research libraries will be technologically up to date. Columbia, of course, will be the last place to computerize its entire catalogue. We shall still in 2006 have cards when they will be a distant memory--I won't speak of places like USC, which are technologically up to date, but even Harvard and Yale will long have forgotten about cards. Columbia will still be replacing its cards, even according to the projected plan for doing this, in nine years' time from now. This is a real problem, by the way, for us who teach, because most students do not know that some books are accessible only to those who use the card catalogue. "Card catalogue?" an undergraduate said to me yesterday. "I didn't know we had a card catalogue." Well, hello, yes we do, and more than 30 percent of the books at Columbia are registered only in that card catalogue. It's the projects which lack sex appeal which are the ones most desperately in need of the attention of the central administration--the conservation of books, the hiring of bibliographers, and things of that kind, the need for which was entirely predictable 10, 20, 30 years ago. There's nothing new about this kind of thing. Of course, the bibliographers now use different techniques, but it's still essentially the same need that was there before. I'm completely unconvinced that the relevant higher-ups, the relevant "Centrals," have any sincere interest in these matters.
Professor Delbanco, would you like to contribute something to this discussion, having heard nothing of what came before? Come up here.
Prof. Andrew Delbanco (English): Thank you. I'm at a disadvantage because I have no sense of the context of what's been said in the last hour. I must apologize for coming in late, but I'm coming from a class. William asked me and no doubt a number of other people if we would care to share a few observations about our experience with the library and, I suppose, be presumptuous enough to tease out some inferences of what that might mean for the future and where we might want to go. I mentioned to the class that I just had to leave a little early in order to get here, that I was coming to this meeting, and one of the graduate students in the class asked me to convey a formulation of hers, which strikes me as really beyond improvement and sort of sums up in advance all the things I was going to say. I think I got it down accurately. She said, "If I wanted to rely on interlibrary loan, I would go to a cheaper university in the midwest." And then she went on to say that "the whole point of being in a major university is to be able to follow one's train of thought without significant interruption." She also went on to add, and I imagine this comment might fly more directly in the face of those economic realities that we are always being asked to consider, that she thinks that it's the responsibility of universities to support academic publishing, the publishing of academic journals, rather than to figure out ways to divide up among themselves which journals each institution will buy and thereby cut the supports out from under the academic publishing operation. But anyway, be that as it may, she should be here to speak for herself. I don't want to speak for more than a couple of minutes. I hope many others have spoken or will.
William, I guess, asked me to come here because he figured I had some experience with the library and might be willing to share it with you. It's anecdotal like everybody else's, I suppose. When I got here 12 years ago, I was very lucky because the project that I was in the midst of at that time was possible to complete by working in the McCalvin Collection at the Union Theological Seminary, which has the great advantage of being a closed collection, and there's always very good library service over there. So I was always able to do the work. The other great advantage I've had here, I should say, and this will embarrass him, is my friendship with Michael Stoller, who is a great intellectual resource for all of us who use the library, and is able to guide me through the problems that seem to arise.
But the fact is, and I suspect I've followed the same path as many of my colleagues, I'm really essentially now a non library user, because the problems of using Butler and the collections at Columbia have become so overwhelming that it doesn't seem to be worth the trouble. In a sense, I think Columbia has gotten away with it for a number of reasons, some of them probably not very attractive with respect to our community, but some of them rather practical. We tend to have research assistants, so we say, "Go get me this book," and we don't much care whether they go get it from Butler or from the New York Public Library in the form of a xerox, or from interlibrary loan. And that sort of blunts the problem. I suspect that's not a situation that's going to persist very much longer because, of course, as the College gets larger, the Graduate School gets somewhat smaller, so the research assistant support that faculty, particularly in the humanities, have been able to rely on won't persist, at least to the same degree that it's been with us. We've gotten away with it because of the presence of a great library at 42nd Street, which is a tremendous resource and has the great advantage, as Union did, of having a closed collection, and you can go there and expect pretty much to find the book.
I think that there are lots of other reasons that I could talk about if we had all the time in the world, which none of us has. One of the other things that's happened in the time that I've been here is that the humanities in general have become less scholarly. So that the kind of assumptions about research that an earlier generation of humanistic scholars would have made don't seem to be quite as important to humanists of the present generation. Now depending on how you look at it, you might think that's good, or not so good. In my own case, I think it's a passing phase, and that scholarship will come back. And when it does come back, the question, it seems to me, is whether it's going to come back at Columbia. My guess is that it won't particularly, at least not to anything like the degree that we would like to see, because we don't have the library system to support it as we once did.
I'm not going to presume, in the presence of people who have to deal with the problems every day of running such a system, to lecture you or myself about why this situation has arisen. I had a chance to glance at the report last night, and it is a theme throughout the report that I fully endorse that there are many people in the libraries who are outstanding professionals and who are doing a heroic job of maintaining the collections and working with faculty. The reference department is terrific. And we all appreciate that. But the fact is, the books are not particularly on the shelves. When I first got here I was put on an advisory committee. I think it was the humanities advisory committee, for the humanities collection in the library. And all the issues that are raised in the report were ventilated in that committee and discussed, and they've all just gotten worse. We did little self-tests: if we had a list of 15 items that we were looking for in the library, how many could we come up with in a two-day period? It usually hovered around 30 or 40 percent. I had the disadvantage of having been used to Widener Library before I came here. It was really quite a shock, and I guess my way of dealing with the shock was to not particularly use the library any more.
So I fear that I've just added to what I assume is the local narrative of despair. I offer a generalization about it: I respect--since I don't know much about it, I'm sure there's a lot of truth in it--the notion that the digital library is the way of the future. And I know the Provost has been heard to say that no major American university will ever build a new library again. Maybe that's true, maybe it's not true, I have no idea, but what I do know is that we have a great collection, which was built up in the 18th and the 19th and the early part of the 20th century, that some of us still value that collection and need to get at it and want to use it, and that that's becoming more and more difficult, with offsite shelving and inadequate staffing in Butler to help you find the book, and as I heard someone say some time ago, if the book is misshelved, it might as well be lost, because you can't find it.
So it's a bad situation. I think the report is accurate when it says that the faculty has pretty much given up on the library. And I think that if there is seriousness in the administration about doing something that would restore a spirit of community here, it would be a good thing to try to put some serious resources back into the library.
William Harris: Knowing what you know of the psychology of our leaders, what would you regard as the most effective way--
Andrew Delbanco: Competitive positioning! Competitive positioning: "We used to be number 6, and what are we now?" I don't know how they do these things.
William Harris: Well, the action plan tells us that we have the seventh-largest university research library in the United States. I must say, if we were to say to President Rupp that we have the seventh-best history department or the seventh-most-competitive undergraduate college, he would be a bit disappointed, I think. We could have been higher up than seventh--of course, this is a remark about quantity and not about overall quality. Part of the complaints, of course, come from people like you and me, who, having been educated in places with more effective library systems than this, would like very much for our students to have the same advantage, and we don't see that here, we don't see the equivalent of the library resources that Harvard and Oxford possess.
Andrew Delbanco: I think that's true. I wanted to sort of stay away from political analysis, as it were, of the situation, but one of the points made in the report is that we seem to be somewhat anomalous in that the library is an administrative entity, rather than a part of the faculty of Arts and Sciences, and that has had a number of implications, one of which, of course, was that the growth of library budgets has been very slow over the last couple of decades. And that was one bookkeeping method by which the overall administrative budget appeared not to be growing at an alarming rate. But of course the impact of that low growth is on the faculty, and on the enterprise of humanistic education. The problem, of course, and this is where I think it would be very important for faculty and students and staff in the library and the administrators with direct responsibility for the library to think of themselves as being all on the same side of this issue, rather than in adversarial relations--the problem is that the library doesn't have a clear constituency that can lobby for it in an environment of diminishing resources. And so I assume the president will say, "If you want us to put more money in the library, we've got to take it away from someplace else," and that's of course true. So then the question becomes whether the believers in the library have a case to make that can outweigh the case that somebody else is making, and the answer obviously, over the last couple of decades, has been no. So ultimately, how to get to the administration is probably through the faculty, to get the faculty to voice its concerns, and unfortunately, because of some of the things I mentioned before--our research assistant system, the New York Public Library, and maybe the place of scholarship in the enterprise--that hasn't happened yet. I hope this is one example of its beginning to happen more.
William Harris: I must say, there are 480 scholars in the Arts and Sciences who are not in this room, and they're not in this room just for the reasons which you're alluding to--they think they can survive. Thank you.
Andrew Delbanco: Be of good cheer!
Jean Ashton, director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library: In a sense I'm outside both the action plan and the external review. We are in there, but we're not in there in a very large way. And I wanted to comment on a couple of things that have been said. One is the competitive issue. In the early part of this century our collections were built, largely with the help of the faculty. Our named collections--the Gonzalez-Lodge, the Seligman--came from faculty members and through the faculty.
I belong to a group with special collections librarians from Harvard and Yale and Stanford and Texas and so forth. We exchange information, we talk a lot. We did an informal survey talking about the size of collections, the size of staff, the amount of acquisitions budget. The size of collections--Columbia is not as big as the Beinecke, but very comparable to Harvard, to Yale, ... to Princeton. Our users are all about the same. There are some giants: UCLA's Bancroft has a different function, is somewhat larger; the Beinecke is much better funded. But when we started to compare the amount of money that was available for the purchase of books and manuscripts, and we started to compare the amount of staff that was available, we fell miserably to the bottom. Our collections are really distinguished, not only Bakmeteff. We have some of the finest collections in the area and the country, and we have been truly competitive with every other institution in the country at our level. But that's partly in the past, and we are no longer in a position where we can compete quite as equally for, let's say, publishing house archives or filling in our collections of rare books and classics. The money is simply not there, and there are collections that we are offered that we have to hesitate before taking because we have no staff to process or deal with these collections.
I think we have a collection that's truly something to be proud of. ... When books are digitized, when they're microfilmed, they still remain books, they remain objects. And we are really protecting and preserving those books. So the digital library is a wonderful thing, but somebody has to take care of the objects themselves. That's what we're really charged with doing, and I think we need to work with the faculty more, and have a faculty that believes in both the importance of the resources and the possibility of continuing to enrich and maintain them. It's partly a question of money, but it's also partly a question of commitment. When people say to me, "Well, I love the library, and you've got ... first folios and you've got cuneiform tablets, and you've got these wonderful things there, but you don't have this, and I go up to Yale for this, or I go up to Harvard for that, or I go down to Princeton for that," we don't have the money usually to say, "Well, give us your want list, and we'll buy what we can. Tell us what you need." Sometimes we can do that, but for the most part we have to be content with people saying their resources are elsewhere.
William Harris: Thanks, that was very illuminating. Would anyone like to make a comment? I would welcome a student perspective, I must say, which we haven't heard very much of.
Sen. Joshua Ratner, chairman of the Senate Student Affairs Committee: It's more a question for you, Mr. Harris. You mentioned earlier on the complacencies you perceived in the action plan. It raises a question, one or two questions along with the issue of secrecy and disclosure, which troubles students. The other question is, Can we really expect the administration to feel compelled to do much any time soon with the action plan, given the fact that they're spending tens of millions of dollars renovating Butler? I'm worried that the allocation of such expensive resources for one area, for the renovation of Butler, might preclude the initial efforts of an action plan.
William Harris: Well, I think we can probably expect the action plan, or something quite like it, to be put into effect. My concern isn't so much about the immediate outlays but about what's going to happen in years 2, 3, and so on down the line. This connects with the problem that was spoken about a few minutes ago. I think that the pressure to improve the situation needs to be maintained. Right now I think that it's real--that is to say, the Provost has this on his screen, and is attempting to deal with the situation. Whether that will be the case in twelve months' time is an open question. Would anyone else like to comment on this question, someone who understands the higher politics of this university better than I do?
Amy Heinrich: I would like to just repeat something I've said. I think that if we're talking about strategy, and if we're looking to see how in future the administration will support the libraries, I think that depends a great deal on how much the faculty supports the libraries. This is what I was trying to talk about before when I said "a shared endeavor." Where the resources are put, in spite of how we all sometimes feel, depends on a common set of values. If the current administration perceives that the majority of people in the institution--many faculty, as well as the librarians, many students--think this is the place where money should be put, it will eventually be put there. And that's why I think the recognition that this is a shared endeavor, and that faculty involvement in the libraries and graduate student involvement in the libraries are essential to the long-term success of any kind of plan, is really important. I'm a little disappointed in the turnout here, actually. There may be a sense someone else will take care of it. Nobody else will take care of it.
William Harris: I'm not sure that I altogether agree with you about its not being a question of us vs. them. Now, clearly, if we're going to negotiate in any sense with the administration, we will not profit from making things too confrontational, and I've probably already contributed to making it too confrontational. On the other hand, I don't think one should deceive oneself into thinking that the interests of the leaders of the university are necessarily the same as those of the library users or librarians. There is a squabble here. How that squabble should be conducted is a matter for debate. But let's not suppose that the leadership is going in just the direction we want them to go in.
Amy Heinrich: I didn't mean to say that it was. You said the relevant people are the library users and the librarians. But we haven't gotten that many library users here.
Joan Ferrante: I have all the frustrations in my use of the library, and I use books virtually exclusively in my work, but we in medieval literature have been fortunate to have the Ancient and Medieval Reading Room, where texts can be found! That is a glorious thing for us, and so good that most or us are terrified that it's going to be taken away any minute, because they'll need the space for some ridiculous other thing. But I would like to say that as a positive thing.
On the subject of people not showing up, I don't think that's a lack of concern. All my colleagues who work regularly with books are very, very worried about the library, very concerned. And I think if we were shown a way to make our concern more public--I, for instance, only knew about this meeting because I'm in the Senate, not because I'm a faculty member. And that's a real problem. My graduate students would have come if they had known. ... There are problems of communication. Also people are busy--Andy [Delbanco] came in from a class, people are doing a million other things. Believe me, it isn't a lack of concern. I think everyone in the humanities faculty is concerned with the library and deeply committed to having something done about it, and would say so if they felt there was a forum they could speak in. Maybe we ought to find a way to do that.
William Harris: Any suggestions? It's hard enough just to get people to serve on the Libraries Committee, let alone turn it into an effective mechanism.
Joan Ferrante: I think even petitions would not hurt. I'm sure we could get loads of signatures. At least it's a statement in numbers.
William Harris: Don't they have some sort of 1984 tube in Low Library that you could put petitions down?
Joan Ferrante: I don't think this number reflects the concern.
Roger Bagnall: I'm less optimistic than Joan about the state of faculty opinion, and the reason lies in this little throwaway line that Andy [Delbanco] tossed out there in the middle of his remarks about the faculty becoming less scholarly. It's a slightly shocking thought, but I can think of at least three ways in which this is really true, and why the faculty have been less engaged in the libraries than they might be. One of them is that this institution has increasingly focused its attentions on the present. A lot more of the appointments over the last couple of decades have been present-oriented. Presentism is not a library-friendly approach to the world, on the whole. It may be shortsighted of them but nonetheless these people tend to believe that they don't need deep library collections for that kind of thing. The second is that there has been a significant emphasis, a predilection here, a real bias, in favor of criticism as opposed to scholarship, the kind of work you can do without actually having very many books, perhaps without knowing very much sometimes. That is a matter of opinion masquerading as scholarship. This is something that has been rewarded around here a fair amount, and I fear that that also is not a library-friendly trend.
Joan Ferrante: But the tradition of belles lettres was here 40 years ago, 60 years ago. There were always people who wrote off the top of their heads.
Roger Bagnall: Of course, and that's part of the reason that the troubles of the library system here are so rooted and not just something of a few years ago. ... Public policy is the third reason. Increasingly there is an emphasis on things that have a payoff for public policy in the short run. And most of these also have fairly shallow library roots. While they may indeed demand significant coverage of certain types of current material, they don't tend to go very deep. And that also is the enemy of the kind of library that ancient historians and medievalists and so forth would like to have. I fear that as long as those trends, which as you say are not entirely new, but seem to me to have grown over the now nearly quarter of a century that I've been here, as long as those trends flourish, the reservoir of faculty support for the libraries is not very deep. It probably doesn't amount to more than about a fifth to a quarter of the faculty at an optimistic reading. I write off most of the scientists right away because they need current collections rather than historical ones, with rare exceptions. They're not deeply interested in the history of science; indeed, history of science is an almost non-existent field here. So that doesn't help. The social sciences, except for history, have very much moved toward the policy direction, so most of those departments are not big library supporters.
William Harris: I ask myself how this library differs from its rivals, and whether any of the differences can be turned to our advantage. One way in which we differ, unless I'm out of date, is that we have more nonprofessional labor in our libraries than most of our rivals, which is certainly the source of some of our problems. We also have much more of a non-university public than most of our rivals, I think. They take the books out, in a sense overuse the books. And it's not clear to me whether there's anything to be got out of that relationship with the inhabitants of the city. But it's certainly something that differentiates us from other people. Somehow or other I feel that we should be able to get something back from this relationship which we have with the great number of readers who are not faculty or students of Columbia University.
George Petschnigg, Class of 2000 representative, Engineering Student Council: The reason that I'm here is because I read the advertisement in the Spectator today, so it was advertised. I was part of the students who were asked to talk to the external review committee, and being part of the Engineering Student Council and talking with my fellows in the Columbia College Student Council, we know the students are very concerned about the state of computing, which I don't think was adequately addressed yet here. ACIS is a big problem for us students, especially the availability of a computer just to do basic tasks like writing an essay. There are times on this campus when it actually takes more time to find a free computer than to write the actual essay. The student councils have been addressing these issues since 1994. In 1996 the ESC condemned ACIS for not addressing these issues adequately. And now the report says, "The discontent of the students is serious and Columbia would be well-advised to devise an appropriate way to service students and understand their concerns." This is very true. My suggestion is that Columbia should provide necessary computers to all of its students. We could do this by fixing up the labs or similar resources, but the cheapest way is to be honest and tell students who come here to Columbia that it is necessary to get their own computer. We could include this in the financial aid package, but I think being honest enough to tell them that our campus cannot support basic tasks like writing essays would be the cheapest way to go. And I think this should be told to students right away when they apply to Columbia.
Vace Kundakci, Deputy Vice President, Academic Computing and Information Services (ACIS): I agree with your assessment that students should be encouraged to own their own computers. Most students, we believe 80 percent of the undergraduates, have their own computers and use them for word processing and other functions in the residence halls. The percentage may not be as high among the graduate students. The purpose of ACIS microcomputer facilities is to provide equipment to serve the technology requirements of the schools and departments, and not necessarily word processing. Furthermore, I don't think there has been space on campus to expand the general purpose microcomputer facilities any further.
George Petschnigg: Another reason why I'm so concerned, speaking as an engineer, I think the situation is even worse when you go into specialized computer labs. For example, our Gussman Lab, with high-end work stations, is used by students to write their essays, which is a waste of resources and hardware. This has to be addressed. The fastest way for the alleviation of this problem is to tell people, "Get your computer for your own room." This should work. We do have a very good network backbone to hook up all the rooms to the internet.
Ben Beecher, Programmer, ACIS: I'm not going to talk about ACIS because Vace really responded to that question. I can just say that when I was an undergraduate here we didn't have the resources that we have today. The fact that students can work from their dorm rooms is a very, very powerful attraction for this university.
I just want to touch very briefly on two points that were not mentioned yet today. One is the idea that the libraries are overly bureaucratic. In point 8 they say, "There seems to be an almost excessively extensive committee structure for dealing with internal functions." I've noticed that too. I've been at this university for many years, and it seems that in order to get something done in the libraries you have to go through many levels of bureaucracy.
Another point, which wasn't brought out in the summary of remedies but was brought out more in the body of the report, was that because of the budget crisis that the various departmental libraries are in, they seem to be redoing the work of other libraries. They don't have the resources to come up with a solution that fits the bill, so they'll buy a little computer and a little software to kind of get by, whereas they would be more efficient if the university provided them with the software tools and the hardware tools. So that wasn't really brought out in the summary at the end, but it's something that we should consider--the economies of scale that you can achieve when you have a central bureaucracy that makes decisions.
I just wanted to support the idea that our budget is in bad shape. I know that in the body of the report they talk about how this is a major university in a big metropolis, and people could make two or three times as much by going downtown. They talk about the heroism of people who work here. I believe that that's true. The people that work here are dedicated. They've put in a great deal of their sweat and their lives to make this a great university. And I think it's very hard for us to attract competent staff because of the fact that they can make twice or three times as much by going downtown.
William Harris: Thank you. Any other comments?
Prof. Eben Moglen (Law): I wouldn't want anybody to think that your view that you'd been too confrontational would go without an answer.
The Frye report is documentation of a famine, in my judgment. That is to say, it documents one of those failures of the basic infrastructure of life which can only occur under nondemocratic conditions. The demographic and social historians will suggest reasons why it is nondemocratic decision making that produces conditions of famine. We had, I think, two basic political analyses in the course of the evening, one of which is that it is a governance problem, and the other--that which Roger Bagnall was offering as an alternative a few moments ago--that it is also a problem of intellectual style. I don't think he is entirely wrong. But the experience of the Law School is useful in allowing us to diagnose which is primary. My colleagues are as anti-scholarly, ahistorical, public-policy-oriented as it is feasible to imagine other units of the University becoming, yet it is not our library which suffers from famine difficulties. I won't outrage my colleagues Jim Hoover and Kent McKeever by suggesting that everything is perfect. It is of course far from perfect. But it is not suffering those fundamental inabilities to recognize fatal decay that we have elsewhere in the system. To be an historically oriented scholar of the Law faculty is certainly to need to use the library in different ways than most of my colleagues do. There are times when I recognize that resources would be allocated differently if I had the uniform allocation of them. But it is the fact that the government of the day in the Law School is immanently responsible to its faculty, which prevents this decay from occurring there in the same way. The fundamental problem is the problem of an insufficiently democratic governance of the University. If you want to attack the difficulty of the libraries in the long term, that is the problem that you have to attack.
What Prof. Delbanco said is correct in demonstrating in my judgment whether it is a governance problem or an intellectual style problem. In conditions of famine there is usually enough to eat for people who have money to eat with, and that is the situation that Prof. Delbanco documented for you. It is possible to be a working scholar in this university without a great deal of difficulty provided that you have some additional resources of your own to put into the process of compensating for the radical distributive failure which is the crisis of the libraries. That reminds you that the primary problem is the problem of distributive justice and the proper response to problems of radical maldistribution is democratization. The government of the day needs to understand that it is producing a distributive crisis. The government of the day will be responsive to that understanding when it is afraid. The government of the day is insufficiently afraid. I would suggest that the proper Senate response, since we are a hearing of the Senate for the purpose of considering legislative solutions to problems, is the introduction of legislation to put the library system under faculty receivership. That is not a practical solution to the problem, but it will stimulate the proper discussion. The reminder is that those people who are not presently suffering hunger need to suffer a little. That is the general way in which famines are ended. My suggestion, therefore, is that Prof. Harris has modestly regarded himself as too confrontational. He has not, I think, adequately identified with sufficient neon underlining what the nature of the situation is.
The first conversation I had with the Provost about the Frye report occurred in the opening days of June, at which time he indicated his hope with me that the situation would not be "politicized." The report vanished for some period of time. It was a secret document; it was suggested by the government of the day that it was a mere management report, not for distribution--various other shifts and motions with which you all ought to be bloody well familiar by now subsequently occurred. I would suggest to you that it is time for politicization of the problem. When the problem has been politicized it won't get instantly better, but it will cease to get worse in a way which is very important to all of us. Failing some better alternative solution to the problem, I will, as an individual senator, introduce legislation in due course along the lines I have suggested. Certainly, those of you who are senators, I will solicit your support for such legislation at the proper time. Thank you.
William Harris: Thank you for that interesting contribution. I would suggest that you also introduce legislation for term limits for provosts (laughter) and vice presidents, as a modest step toward democratization. Were the Provost to become a sociology professor again, of course he would then become powerless. But the prospect of becoming a sociology professor might wake him up a little bit. The same goes for certain other higher-ups, I think, who might be recycled back to certain departments. When the president faces the prospect of becoming a professor of religion, then he may start praying, I guess. Till then I largely agree. I don't think what you're suggesting is in the least bit practical, but the analysis is splendid, I think. Anyone else like to comment, particularly about this last provocation?
Joan Ferrante: I do think it's a way to focus conversation and attention. If you produce legislation, they're going to have to answer it. They're going to have to explain why we don't need it.
[Cassette ends here; some discussion is lost before taping resumes]
Elaine Sloan: I'd just like to tell you that the action plan will be available next Monday [November 24]. It will be widely distributed and anybody who does not get a copy should contact my office.
William Harris: Will that be a revised version, or the one that was already distributed?
Elaine Sloan: A slightly revised version.
William Harris: I will conclude by thanking everyone who came. I believe that there are actually a lot of other people out there who are interested in these problems, as Joan was saying, but still you showed unusual devotion to duty by coming, and I'm extremely grateful, and we will pass on these comments, and perhaps, with any luck, take some political action.
Tom Mathewson, Senate staff