Public institutions are often very bad about infrastructure. Just look at the failure of governments at all levels to maintain roads and bridges and light rail or, for that matter, schools. As a public institution, the University of California has the same problem. There is considerable glory in starting a splashy new program that promises to be at the forefront of the Next Big Thing and not much shortage of donors who will help fund it in return for having their names prominently displayed on buildings and labs. It is much harder to promote and raise funds for improvements that are largely invisible, no matter how necessary they may be.
So it is that in the last few months Chancellor Nicholas Dirks has proposed a massive investment in the Richmond Field Station 10 miles northwest of the university. The plan is to turn its 100-odd acres into a shining, new Global Campus. We hope that the plan will also address the crisis that has overtaken an essential set of buildings on the very same site. The buildings house the Northern Regional Library Facility, or NRLF. They contain almost all of the research materials that cannot be stored within libraries on the campus itself — meaning the majority of UC Berkeley’s library holdings. Thus more than 60 percent of Doe and Moffitt’s collection is not in Doe and Moffitt but at NRLF.
NRLF currently holds more than 6 million items — mostly books and journals but also microfilms, maps, audio discs, manuscripts and archival materials. 75 percent of the material has been deposited by UC Berkeley itself, but the remainder has been deposited by other northern UC campus libraries. Even the California State Library stores some material. Most of it is immediately available upon request to faculty, graduate students and undergraduates at UC Berkeley and other UC campuses, as well as to all other interested users who submit requests through public or academic libraries.
How important is NRLF? In the 2013-14 academic year, more than 51,000 items were checked out of it — a figure that does not include the vast number of journal articles that were scanned and sent to users electronically from the facility.
What is the crisis? NRLF will be full in 2016. We are not going to stop buying books, periodicals and research collections. There just won’t be any place to put them.
It might be thought that the problem of physical storage of physical copies of research volumes is old-school and that NRLF will soon be unnecessary. After all, many people seem to believe that hard copies will soon be outmoded because nearly everything one reads can be digitized and made available online. Some of the same people argue that universities will strongly benefit from this change because they will no longer need to spend money buying books and journals only occasionally consulted or building the facilities to store them. Both claims are false. We do not say this because we are Luddites who romanticize books. Far from it. Many who do research in the humanities and social sciences know the value of digitization. Most of us not only use online materials — we rely on them. We could not do our research or our teaching without them. Often enough, we contribute to the e-verse, making our research available online, writing for online journals and building websites to drive our teaching and research in entirely new directions. Simply because we are such heavy users of online resources, we know their advantages and their limitations. And there are limitations.
As a number of recent studies have shown, reading on a screen is very efficient for many purposes — but not for all purposes. No one can analyze a complex argument presented in a 500-page book using ebrary or ACLS e-Books (try it sometime). No one can do research if they have to wait five minutes for a single page to load from Internet Archive. In any case, the majority of editions available online were made available only because they are so old that they have passed into the public domain. Unfortunately, being so old, their scholarship is often 50 or 100 years out of date. The cost savings are also probably illusory, at least in the long term. For publishers of online material do not sell the material — they sell the right to consult the material which they continue to own, leaving universities (and scholars) at the whim of their pricing and packaging strategies.
Nothing in the foreseeable future is going to do away with the need for hard copies of books. NRLF is not sexy, but it is essential.
The obvious solution is to add capacity at the existing site at NRLF. Certainly, it is the cheapest and fastest solution. NRLF’s existing buildings were constructed modularly, anticipating the need for expansion, so the space is available, while loading docks, roads, reading room and, not least, skilled staff are already in place. The buildings need to be climate-controlled but do not need to be expensive displays of cutting-edge architectural design (after all, they are basically warehouses). And because UC Berkeley is by far the largest user of NRLF (and also the largest supplier of materials), it makes obvious sense to keep the holdings nearby.
But 2016 is one budget cycle away. We cannot wait.
Geoffrey Koziol is a history professor at UC Berkeley, and Todd Hickey is a professor of classics at UC Berkeley.