Commentary

The Eliminationists

The Eliminationists

Rabun Taylor

Professor of Classics, University of Texas at Austin

One day in the summer of 2017 I made a routine visit to one of my favorite places on campus, the Fine Arts Library of the University of Texas at Austin. As I passed through the security point on the third floor of the Doty Fine Arts Building, the familiar multistory wall of windows illuminating the old reference area offered an inviting view of the leafy campus outside. I knew already that this was a troubled and contested place; the year before, without consulting the faculty of the College of Fine Arts, Dean Doug Dempster and Vice Provost and Director of UT Libraries Lorraine Haricombe had appropriated a third of this great hall for a “makerspace,” a zone for creative tinkering and special equipment named the Foundry. The reference collection had been moved one floor up, now sharing space on the fourth floor with the institution’s premier collections of art books, musical scores, and journals.

I climbed the stairs to the fourth floor. I am a classical archaeologist, working widely across the realms of architectural and art history, urban studies, social and cultural history, and reception studies. Hundreds of books relevant to my interests occupied the stacks on that floor; over the years I had assigned many to graduate students in my own program, Classics, and in Art History. It was a hard-working collection: many of these books, and countless more I had encountered by chance from browsing the stacks, often came off the shelves. The smaller monographs circulated frequently; but the bigger or more specialized volumes, like catalogs, generally did service in the library itself.

To my astonishment and dismay, when I reached the fourth floor, it was gutted. The stacks were gone. The place was milling with workers raising studs and drywall. I rushed up to the fifth floor, finding the major art book and journal stacks still in their familiar arrangement, but now reorganized to accommodate the entire range of call numbers previously extending across both floors together.

I learned later that Dempster and Haricombe had made a stealth strike on the Fine Arts Collection, removing some 55,000 books and scores, 20,000 journal volumes, and nearly 100,000 CDs and DVDs—without any faculty consultation whatsoever and with no consideration of whether the departing journals were already digitized. The space was being repurposed for a new Institute of Design and Center for Arts and Entertainment Technologies, a project Dempster had been promoting heavily in the hopes of boosting sagging enrollments in the College of Fine Arts. In the dean’s messianic bid to make his college relevant to an imagined new constituency of creative, tech-savvy young Turks spilling over from the university’s technology sector, nearly half of the library’s physical resources had been swept away by imperial fiat.

But Dempster wasn’t done. He wanted the fifth floor too, for a new, much larger School of Design and Creative Technologies, announced in early fall to widespread surprise. As the grim facts of the situation spilled out to a disbelieving faculty and student body, it was learned that an additional 85,000 volumes were awaiting the same fate. The damage to the collections was even worse than I initially thought. Many of these items—the full number remains uncertain— had not simply been removed to UT’s proprietary remote storage; by all appearances, they have been deaccessioned to a “Joint Library Facility” (JLF) shared with Texas A&M in College Station, never to return. The whole episode is mired in confusion, and no record has emerged of the collection’s precise reallocation. By chance, runs of five American art journals crucial to research on modern and contemporary art were salvaged from deportation, only because one member of the faculty, learning entirely by chance that they were being boxed up for removal, rushed to their rescue. All the rest departed for the JLF, where they evidently have gone into joint ownership with Texas A&M University. The question of ownership remains murky: UT Libraries administration claims that our institution still owns all books in storage at the facility, yet the facility’s own website explains that its holdings are under joint ownership. One distinguished professor of art history at UT, in a letter to the dean, remarked that when he ordered three volumes of a periodical formerly on the shelves, two arrived “marked as formerly belonging to UT.” Their arrival took eighteen days.

If it is true that the JLF volumes are jointly owned, then their removal is irreversible. But it gets worse. There is also reason to believe JLF holdings have been “de-duplicated,” i.e., stripped of all duplicate copies. According to its website, “unlike most other cooperative storage units, TAMU’s and UT’s decided they would de-duplicate their low use print collection and achieve this cost saving goal by housing only one print copy ‘owned’ between the two institutions.” (What it means to “own” something in quotation marks I cannot say.) In the case of A&M’s books, the preferred method of space-saving appears to be shredding. It took nearly nine months, but information has finally emerged about how UT-Austin de-duplicates books: we give them away.

Dempster’s sole criteria for permanent removal sounded a familiar refrain: low circulation statistics, and anecdotal observations that the stacks seemed deserted most of the time. It is true that circulation of physical collections has declined over the last decade. But such figures for academic library books and journals are grotesquely deceptive. Bound journals and important books are often treated as reference volumes, rarely checked out because of the nature of their contents (perhaps they contain short articles or entries) or their physical bulk. Many travel no farther than the in-house scanner. Other volumes are less often encountered, but when they are, it is for a special purpose known best to those who consult them—usually the more diligent scholars, those who like champion fishermen rely on deep knowledge and instinct to find their reward in some of the quieter corners of the lake. As for Dempster’s protestations that the fourth and fifth floors are often deserted, he relied not on data, but on personal impressions. If he had known that the wireless connections and outlets are almost nonexistent on the fifth floor, and spotty on the fourth, perhaps he would have understood that researchers are likely to set up a workstation elsewhere. My own recourse was usually the third floor, away from the stacks. Even now, amid the clatter and chatter of the Foundry, it remains so.

Radical eviscerations like this are no longer an outlier in the academic world. Articles in the trade and popular press documenting massive campaigns to remove physical collections from libraries are now depressingly common. Make no mistake: I am not talking about the culling process, the natural and entirely justifiable accommodation of new acquisitions by judiciously retiring older books to a storage facility under the institution’s sole ownership. I refer to the wholesale elimination of shelf space and the deaccessioning of print collections to private or jointly owned facilities where they fall out of the institution’s ownership. Some state university systems have resorted to this model, destroying or selling all duplicates.

Underlying this epidemic is the creed of disruption. Since Harvard Business School guru Clayton Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation” in 1997, his gospel of monetizable mischief has seized our entrepreneurial culture by the throat, reverberating out from executive suites into the halls of academia, where the creative chaos has been favored with the softer name of “transformation.” Thus was born the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, now extinct after squandering tens of millions of dollars from its oil-lease endowment on briefly fashionable online-learning schemes.

Dempster seems to have gotten the religion. Consider his proposal for a 2018 panel at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin:

As dean of a Fine Arts college at a Research 1 institution, I often wonder if now is the time to rethink our 100-year deference to the “fine arts” at the expense of commercial, popular and practical forms of creative making. How does an arts college remain relevant in a technology-mad, data-crazed, entrepreneurially minded campus? Answer: We have to meet at the intersection of art and enterprise and transform our purpose to better serve our students so they can serve and benefit society.

1. How can traditional creative disciplines and creative faculty be more relevant to a 21st century research university?

2. Why the concept of a “fine” art is an anachronism on a research campus

3. What do creative disciplines have in common with STEM fields?

You read that right: UT-Austin’s Dean of Fine Arts dissed his own academic domain, fencing it off like a ghetto with dehumanizing quotation marks, assailing the very discipline that built the pulpit from which he hurls his disruptive thunder. This fumbling text holds all the DNA of the modern neoliberal malaise. First, it offers special pleading for parity with STEM disciplines, because (it implies) the arts can no longer stand on their own. Second, it signals that old and new cannot coexist: one must displace the other. “Fine” arts rules in this zero-sum kingdom, and now the king must die. Third, it exalts a kind of trade-school education over traditional academic inquiry. The phrase “creative making” expresses, consciously or not, the “makers vs. takers” mentality animating Dempster’s entire enterprise. Scholarship is for losers. Scholars are takers, scavenging off the meaty frame of the makers. Their efforts are but the pallid moon against the sun of creativity. If these words fall upon your ear with a slightly totalitarian cadence, then you are hearing what I hear.

How would the dean “transform our purpose”? By removing the bad apple, the “fine arts,” from the tainted bushel of creativity. Yet Dempster, the populist, seems not to have anticipated how intensely unpopular his transformation has been. Faculty in every unit of the College of Fine Arts have responded with stinging letters of reproof. Students have voiced their shock, anger, and disbelief as well—first in a town hall in fall 2017, and now in a letter-writing campaign. So how has the central administration reacted? In fact, it made no public response until I raised the issue at the February 2018 Faculty Council meeting, whereupon the reply was, in effect, “We’re looking into it.”

This was not entirely disingenuous; the dean’s embarrassing circumstances have compelled him to convene a small task force on the future of the Fine Arts Library, which the administration is monitoring. Yet nobody at the higher levels of our institution, least of all President Greg Fenves and the provost, Maurie McInnis, seems to have worried much about the social or educational costs of the upheaval. Within UT’s arts and humanities faculty, grave reservations about Haricombe existed from the start. But Fenves—who as provost oversaw her hiring—knew what he wanted, and evidently got it. Coming from an engineering background, he nodded when the physical collections in science and engineering libraries around campus were eliminated. Will he care when Haricombe goes after the geology library, next on the hit list?

In the midst of all this paper-hate, one simple fact has been lost: most people prefer print over the digital alternative. Yes, it’s great to access an e-book from home or abroad; nobody denies this. Yes, online journals are a fine thing—and for the most part (with the important exception of geology), the natural sciences and engineering, which rely almost entirely on recent scholarship published in article form, have jettisoned their print libraries without much regret. For better or worse, business schools too are eliminating their print libraries, because… well, because “Disruptions R Us.”

But in the rest of academe, study after study shows that print books remain the superior cognitive and learning tool. Indeed, a great majority of people—in one study, 97 percent— prefer them for both practical and aesthetic reasons. The standard business model of academic e-books—providing the cheapest possible product delivered at the highest possible price (nowadays often higher than the print version)—ensures that, functionally, they will remain at the bottom of the barrel. Administrators may love them, but those who hate academic e-books the most are inevitably the ones compelled to use them. In the humanities, it has been shown that students prefer to pay for a print book even when given access to the e-book version for free.

What’s more, e-books are not forever. Libraries don’t own them; they lease them, under sometimes burdensome terms. “E-books prevent deep reading, their use is highly restricted, and they can vanish without notice,” wrote Professor Peter C. Herman in 2014, when challenging the pro-digital policy of his own university system, California State. “Right now, prices seem entirely reasonable, but once a library or a library system gets hooked, then they must continually pay the rising subscription fee or else a huge number of books will just disappear.” Neither UT Libraries, nor any other entity that I know of, seems to have a longterm strategy for contending with this rentier model of indebtedness. A day of reckoning will surely come when electronic resources start to vanish from the catalog because a library cannot meet the creditor’s ongoing demands.

Compound that sobering reality with the fact that art books don’t go digital. Though he has been Dean of Fine Arts for well over a decade, apparently Dempster did not know, or didn’t care, that most art books and exhibition catalogs are rarely converted to e-books. Why? Because print books emerge from a long and distinguished tradition of design, every bit as vital as digital design but with the added benefit of material longevity. They are the art that encloses the art, the mini-museum that draws and cloisters the reader’s attention. Just as importantly, the cost of reproduction rights renders the digitization of image-intensive books prohibitively expensive. Many entities (museums, archives, foundations, publishers, etc.) charge much more for worldwide electronic publishing rights than for print rights. Consequently Yale University Press publishes less than 1 percent of its art list in e-book form; MIT’s digitization ratio for art books is a staggering .013 percent.

But for the last decade at least, chief librarians trained on the corporate model have bemoaned every new physical volume that enters their domain. Print books cost overhead; they’re space hogs; if they can’t be sold or destroyed outright, their proper place is a storage facility where they aren’t cluttering up potential real estate for “collaborative commons” or “makerspace.” Listen to Haricombe’s own words, from a recent opinions piece in the Austin American-Statesman:

In some ways, rethinking libraries will mean collapsing old paradigms and sacrificing some of the nostalgia that we may have for paper and silence. If libraries are to realize a future potential, they’ll need to play a significantly more active role in creativity and productivity processes. The library is no longer a place to worship books; rather, a library, to modify the famous metaphor of Socrates, is the delivery room for the birth of ideas.

The goal of all this nonsense is not to bring the old and the new into comfortable coexistence. It is instead to ensure that the new completely vanquishes the old. Its paradigm is nothing less than a bookless library. This concept is already a veritable reality at many public university system campuses. Single libraries have jettisoned hundreds of thousands of volumes to make way for social or study space. Florida Polytechnic University even hired the superstar architect Santiago Calatrava to design and build a brand-new bookless library for its new Lakeland campus. Like the bleached ribs of a beached and decomposed whale, its mighty rank of arches subtends an empty and heartless void.

Dempster’s brand of radical eliminationism has long been in the ascendant at teaching universities. Now it has arrived at premier research institutions. At UT-Austin, the demise of the Fine Arts Library is only the beginning. I have heard from several reliable sources that Haricombe’s long-term objective is to clear out large sectors of Perry-Castañeda Library, the central research facility on campus. One plan eliminates all stacks from the third floor—roughly an acre of books—and gives the space over to student services. Another displaces the cataloging department from the library’s first (basement) floor and permanently cedes the space to central administration. This latter scheme seems to have been negotiated with the administration itself, because the space is already tentatively earmarked for a welcome center.

Welcome center indeed! What could be more welcoming than a library eviscerated of the very organs that sustain it?

Even if Dempster’s fondest hopes for his new School of Design and Creative Technologies are realized, the Fine Arts Library episode seems self-defeating. UT-Austin’s administrators, like their peers in every other public flagship institutions, are obsessed with rankings, which they know reflect the opinions not just of other administrators, but of the students and professoriate in the trenches. In one stroke, the dean has pushed the standing of his prestigious graduate art history program to the edge of a cliff. He and Provost McInnis speak of hiring “star faculty” into the department, evidently unperturbed by the prospect that no distinguished professor of art history would ever darken the door of any institution stupid enough to decimate its fine arts library.

I have emphasized faculty and graduate research, but we teach our undergraduates to learn by our example. In my first-year honors seminar, “Roman Art and Society,” I spend hours introducing my students to the complexities of high-level research in my field, frequently emphasizing how essential the physical collections are for students at any level. (In my field, a vast body of essential literature—much of it from European academic presses—remains undigitized, probably forever.) And what if you want your students to write a research paper on a famous artist? There are currently 433 books under the subject heading “Picasso, Pablo, 1881-1973” in the catalog, and hundreds more on his exhibitions, criticism of his works. Many of these works are indistinguishable in quality or relevance to a novice. Without the quick appraisals available only in the stacks, where do you start? “A student cannot commence a paper on Van Gogh without going to the shelves to find the relevant books for their research,” says Linda Dalrymple Henderson, Professor of 20th-century European Art, and one of five Guggenheim Fellows on the UT-Austin art history faculty. “There is no way to evaluate the usefulness of the books simply from vast lists in the online catalog. And once books are ordered from storage, students regularly wait a week to ten days for their arrival from the JLF. Dismantling the fifth-floor library would destroy not only our nationally recognized grad program but also our ability to recruit undergrads to the major or to UT itself.”

Faculty in the Butler School of Music are likewise deeply concerned about what the further dismantling of the Fine Arts Library would mean for their students in performance and musicology. Music historians browse deeply and intensively, like their colleagues in the visual arts. But most of the music journals (only some of which have been digitized) were transferred to the JLF and are, presumably, irrecoverable. For performance faculty and students, musical scores are a critical resource in the Fine Arts Library. Faculty regularly send students to a particular edition of a score after a lesson, and students habitually browse scores when choosing music for their recitals.

Digital versions of scores are a poor recourse too: any sheet music published since 1923, being under copyright, is not freely available in digital form. Older scores available at a resource like imslp.org may be in the public domain, but most of them are outdated editions that do not conform to modern critical standards. The streaming platforms that have replaced the CDs and DVDs in the Fine Arts Library are plagued with technical problems and render the institution ever more beholden to digital subscriptions. “This is a good illustration of what’s wrong with library holdings structured around subscription services,” observes Jim Buhler, Professor of Theory at the Butler School of Music. “You can’t rely on having continual access to materials as the price and terms of the service may change at any time.” Think about how the Netflix library has fluctuated over time. Institutional subscription services are not so different.

Was weakening his college’s traditional academic programs Dempster’s plan from the start? And does he even believe the faux-utopian platitudes he spouts? It’s hard to tell. What can be said is this: he made the executive decision to expand the College of Fine Arts without expanding its physical space. The new Foundry and School of Design and Creative Technologies, which now occupy the third and fourth floors of the erstwhile library, were introduced on the cheap, without the hard work of cultivating donors and accumulating the capital resources for new construction that traditionally accompanies a major program expansion. Perhaps the dean is hell-bent on impugning the traditional fine arts not because he actually believes what he says, but because he senses the vulnerability of his position and the inadequacy of his vision. Deflect attention from a job poorly done by demeaning the thing you are displacing. Blame the thing you have impoverished for its very poverty.

With every eliminationist move, the core mechanism of research in the arts and humanities— browsing—is compromised. All serious scholars in these fields browse. We walk the stacks, pulling books from the shelves in blocks, following unanticipated paths of discovery, trolling from one sheltered cove to another. Most academic browsing, like many a fishing trip, comes up empty. The big fish may bite only after many books have been pulled, sorted, and mulled over. But we remember the small fry, too, the ones we throw back; a title that is useless now may grow later, to our surprise, into a sizable catch. This kind of complex browsing is built into a bodily process that requires not tiny windows on a screen, but a big table and endless canyons of open shelves. In the stacks, we develop cognitive maps saturated with complex spatial memory. Contrary to the pronouncements of the faux utopians, digitization has not found a workaround for this essential, embodied process. Electronic space is essentially flat, and hostile to this kind of wayfinding.

But like the microfilming delirium that led to the wholesale destruction of physical collections in the late twentieth century—a phenomenon documented in heartbreaking detail by the novelist Nicholson Baker—our new strain of library sickness is infecting the nation like a plague. Now, as institutions cripple their physical libraries by shipping them off campus, deaccessioning them to joint storage facilities, and pulping or selling off duplicates, the results are becoming depressingly clear. Instructors have yet another incentive to abandon any effort to assign physical books to their students, or ask them to undertake complex research tasks at all. Frustrated researchers, denied the long, book-lined avenues of possibility that have sustained academic endeavors for hundreds of years, are consigned to crude and inefficient tactics, deluging interlibrary services with casual requests at great cost of time, money, and energy. Books that before came off the shelf for a few minutes and then were returned will now be delivered by truck, sluggishly and needlessly, only to be thumbed through for five minutes and dropped back down the return slot. Serendipitous moments of insight will happen far less often, because the books of chance encounter—those that used to stand beside the volume first sought—never met the researcher’s gaze. What is this academic equivalent of blast-fishing in pitch darkness costing us in intellectual capital? What does it cost in dollars? And with all those book trucks trundling the objects of our enfeebled hopes, what is it costing in fossil fuel and environmental degradation? Maybe the ultimate objective of the eliminationists is simply to render our age-old, time-tested methods—our “nostalgia… for paper and silence,” in Haricombe’s condescending words—so inefficient and so demoralizing that we will stop using them altogether.

As an academic, I understand and appreciate the need for every great library to wrestle perpetually with the challenge of deciding what remains on the shelves and what goes into storage. But these kinds of routine compromises are a far cry from the current status quo at UT-Austin, where the fervent intent of deans and executive librarians—evidently with the approval of Provost McInnis, who (incredibly) is herself an art historian—is not to maintain and manage stack space, but to eliminate it.

And so here is the bottom line: Dean Dempster, with Vice Provost Haricombe’s collusion, has done grave damage to a physical asset that is overwhelmingly favored by the university community. They intentionally did it in the dead of night, keeping the stakeholders in the dark, betting that there would be little or no reaction. They consciously planned their deed in a manner that would be almost irreversible.

I, for one, demand that they reverse it anyway. Further, they should preserve the Fine Arts Library on the fifth floor. And if they refuse on either count, then they should lose their jobs.

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