On April 10 an article appeared on the RNZ website regarding Auckland University closing some (more) of its specialist libraries, under the sensationalising headline: “Library closures prompt fears University of Auckland will burn books.”
Auckland Uni has already closed the Engineering library and merged it with the General library; at risk now are the Architecture and Planning library, the Music & Dance Library and the Fine Arts Library.
As an artist working in a specialist fine arts library, the furore particularly over the beloved Elam Fine Arts Library has hit close to home. Here’s my position for what it’s worth: although I’ve no real skin in the game as I’m not a member of the Elam library personally, I am hugely biased because I do not believe this library should close.
Libraries face a lot of criticism from detractors who presumably don’t read books or use libraries themselves, and advances in technology (primarily the ubiquity of the internet) have led to some suggestion that libraries are becoming obsolete.
I believe that libraries are essential to artists, and are integral to their research, but I’ll temper that by saying from a library perspective not all books are worthy. The thing that has bothered me most about the string of articles and the numerous conversations I’ve had with people in the last couple of weeks is the focus on the “book burning” (RNZ did a follow up article in which Auckland’s Director of Libraries Sue Roberts explained that books are occasionally thrown away but not burnt).
I obviously can’t speak for Auckland University libraries, as I don’t work there, but ALL libraries get rid of books. It even has a library term: “weeding”. A gardener will tell you that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place, and it’s the same with books: Books are worthy, but not all books are worthy. Libraries will weed books that are damaged, or unused, or titles they have too many copies of: this makes sense because if you take away the books that aren’t read, you make room for new books and new ideas.* A specialist library’s purpose is not to archive books for eternity, but to provide (in a finite space) the most pertinent books for its patrons.
I’ve heard people freaking out about computers deciding what books to weed as though librarians were relying completely on some unformed or unknowing AI. It’s not “computers” it’s the library catalogue, and it’s just a tool. The library catalogue can tell which books haven’t been taken out for years because it logs when books are checked out. If you want to save a book, all you need to do is take it out and read it. It’s frustrating hearing people focussing on the weeding process, because it’s illogical: Weeding books doesn’t destroy libraries, it saves them, because it keeps them relevant.
The point that people should focus on is why having a specialist library is valuable to artists. If you are not an artist, you probably think art is an indulgent subject, I’ve heard it described by non-artists as “therapeutic” or “restful” or “pleasant” as though art is just a bunch of people indulging their largely decorative hobby. Occasionally you get students who think this too, they don’t last long. Art is probably one of the most rigorous subjects you could pursue because it incorporates both practical and theoretical components, and requires students to constantly adapt, think, and problem solve. Moreover because art is subjective, its extremely challenging and much harder to know when you’ve reached the right conclusion (or even if a ‘right conclusion’ is possible!) Beyond that it requires a level of creativity that is always being pushed forward. In order to succeed as artists, students need to be well versed not only in their own practice, but in how their practice sits within a contemporary context, and how it builds on, or is informed by, the art historical context.
Fine art is a deeply intellectual subject. Having a specialist Fine Art library provides a curated collection of books, periodicals, digital databases and special collection resources that allow for both visual and textual research. Unlike relying solely on internet research, or general libraries alone, having access to a specialist library means that students are accessing quality academic research, specific to their discipline, selected by subject specialists.
But this is not just a question of penny-pinching corporations wilfully misunderstanding academic needs. Do you know why libraries are at risk? Because people aren’t reading. The culture of libraries is losing out to a generation who haven’t grown up going to libraries. Each year I’ve noticed an increase in the number of students who just don’t understand how to use a library, or who aren’t familiar with the culture or lingo of the library (I hear “can I rent this book?” multiple times a week). I’ve had students in their early 20s tell me that this is the first time they have checked out a book, ever. It’s not really surprising when you consider how accessible and immediate the internet is. I think honestly too, that there are a lot of people who like the idea of books more than they like the idea of reading.
It’s the other reason the “book burning” freakout is annoying, because I suspect that there are people caught up in the emotive (and visual) idea of books being destroyed who only care because they dislike the idea of something being taken away without really critically assessing what that means, or why it’s even on the cards. Without assessing if anything will actually change for them. For those of us who aren’t patrons of the Elam library it’s just theoretical, so it’s important to think about this in terms of whatever you do have access to, whether it’s a library from another institution or your local public library. Because I think a lot of genuine book lovers have lost the love a little, and I think its easy to mourn something when it’s going or gone, but much harder to muster the enthusiasm to regularly appreciate what you have right now.
I’m not saying this to shame people or to discourage their protests (please protest); more as a reminder that if you aren’t using it, you risk losing it. As well as registering your outrage, go to your library and check out a book… you may find it worthy.
*(FYI: When we weed books they are always offered to staff and students for free).
Here’s a website that is collecting feedback on the proposal to close the University of Auckland’s specialist libraries: https://savefineartslibrary.com