“Fahrenheit 451” would be more costly today

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When Ray Bradbury wrote “Fahrenheit 451,” the horror story of a world without books, his financial challenge was having enough dimes to feed a typewriter in a University of California library. People with bright ideas in Berkeley libraries today need a bit more help.

The good news is that campus libraries are getting new funding. Tapping several sources, UC Berkeley is coming up with a $7 million investment.

The first reason to cheer is that faculty, students and administrators listened to each other about libraries and agreed on where we should be headed.

Two years ago, after the collapse of state funding at the university, librarians at UC Berkeley outlined choices facing the campus. These were unsettling, changing the way smaller libraries were to work and accelerating the shift already underway from paper to digital materials. The library also proposed to use its talented staff in new ways, consolidating their work.

As we shared our thinking, our users made trenchant points but often talked past one another. They were indeed close observers, but they often lived different library lives. Many serious users have less reason to walk into a library every semester, as they find more of what they need in the online publications we license. Other learners and researchers are library habitues, able to point out that an over reliance on the digital is holding them back. And, these users observe, libraries are crowded on their deadlines. It is not surprising that on a campus where many libraries borrow from the architecture of temples (Doe Library has Athena in a war helmet), changing the look and feel of libraries led many users to stand their ground.

Perhaps it is true that reorganizing academic fields disturbs the peace more than library restructuring (UC Berkeley has not attempted this since the biological sciences were reconfigured a generation ago). But aligning libraries with the new ways we teach, learn and preserve information comes close.

The faculty Commission on the Future of the UC Berkeley Library Report, released last semester, looks deeply into the different communities that use research librarians for different purposes. It also brought the re-envisioning of libraries at the University of Michigan and Harvard into the conversation, showing that disruptive changes are being made without the prompt of a budget crisis. Scholarly communication itself, the faculty noted, needed a stronger hand from libraries and faculty working together — or else the research record could disappear and new knowledge would be lost: a modern version of “Fahrenheit 451.”

I was reminded of the ways Berkeley libraries bridge generations and make a lifetime of work possible in an email that arrived this month. Jeffrey Meyers, a distinguished biographer, said, “I’ve been using the Cal library since 1960 and have published more than 50 books . . . Your first-rate staff has greatly facilitated my research.” Meyers named some of the librarians who had helped him, including a person who has labored long on our reorganization and who I now know possesses the skill to find a book when Meyers himself could not recall “the author, title, publisher, place or date of publication.” The appreciation of librarians was equally fervent in the remarks of the commission co-chairs Carla Hesse of history and Jim Midgley of social welfare, as well as the chair of the Academic Senate Library Committee, Margaretta Lovell from history of art.

While the commission worked, the library was rolling out new services and finding partners that fit the needs being articulated in this discussion. Some are simple and will pay immediate benefits; others are complex but promise new ways to conceptualize the questions that take us to a library in the first place. All examples on my list depend on the renewed support for career professionals who we now have at Berkeley as well as the 500 student workers who power daily operations; we made scanning in the libraries free, and we will soon begin loaning laptops. High-performance computing will be more available to our users, with the help of campus Information and Technology Services and Education and Technology Services. We also made it possible for a book checked out of one library to be returned at any library. In Moffitt Library, we paired more powerful computers for student use with a lounge that shows off our new books in all fields. We have spent donor funds to start building the infrastructure that will allow Moffitt hours to be longer, and we have already greatly extended the hours of Doe Library. Public programs on East Asian Library as well as cutting-edge work on big data are being welcomed into Doe Library. Furthermore, the Social Welfare and Business libraries are poised for change to fit their dynamic curricula with a new sense of community. We also formed the team that will revise our websites by next summer, and with the Chancellor’s help, the new Campaign for the Berkeley Library will give the long-suffering habitues of Moffitt the study space they deserve.

When new funding is in place and we have hired experts to turn more of the ideas into reality, the library will indeed be better able to be the “jewel” that Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer and Academic Senate Chair Elizabeth Deakin declare it to be after carefully considering the commission’s report.

Tom Leonard is a university librarian and a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism. You can contact him at [email protected]


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