March 21, 2018
Dr. Douglas Dempster, Dean College of Fine Arts
2305 Trinity St
Austin, TX 78712
Dear Dean Dempster,
I write regarding the recent transfer of 75,000 volumes from the Fine Arts Library into offsite storage, to make room for makerspaces on two floors of the FAL. After reading the international press on the matter, I want to share my thoughts with you and the current Fine Arts Library Task Force. Having served with you on the Blanton Director Search Committee in 2008, I know you to be a reasonable person, so I write to you not only as an early-career scholar and a proud UT alumna, but also a friendly colleague.
As an art historian, I freely admit my bias toward printed books and library collections. After earning my PhD in art history at UT, I have been fortunate to receive a highly competitive postdoctoral fellowship at Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, Italy, where I am currently based. The Villa is both a research library and the former residence of Bernard Berenson, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who became a world- renowned art historian at Harvard. In creating I Tatti, Berenson’s mission was twofold: to preserve “orphan” books and artworks (his words) for future research; and to host politically dissident, GLBTQ, or otherwise imperiled writers during the rise of fascism in Europe. The book project that I am revising at I Tatti came from my dissertation at UT, and stems from the primary-source research that I did in UT’s Fine Arts Library—some of it using “rarely circulating items” that had not been checked out since the 1970s. I am delighted that Harvard supports this legacy of discovery, housing books and photographs that would otherwise be categorized as under-utilized and irrelevant.
Since I suspect your concerns about the FAL are fiscal, though, I’ll offer a more practical bit of context than just my research at an Ivy League postdoc. As is typical for a new PhD on the job market, I have been giving first- and second-stage interviews for assistant professor positions this year. In every single interview, art and design faculty have interrogated me about my plans to get students to work with more primary sources. This is not an exaggeration. It is a growing point of concern for undergraduate institutions, especially ones that offer majors in design disciplines. One search committee member told me that the library-oriented lessons that I said were integral to my teaching (short research tutorials for artists on how to locate and mine printed books and magazines; assignments that ask students to investigate archives of their choice; and discussions about the bodily experience of looking at analog materials) are urgently needed for students who have grown up with born-digital sources and images. In short, a junior scholar entering the job market without a library- and archive-based pedagogy does so at her peril.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that robust library collections are as beneficial to trade-oriented majors like Graphic Design as they are to painters, sculptors, or historians. It is rare that I have visited the desk of a designer without seeing their curated collection of hard-to-find vintage books, or exhibition catalogs from decades long past. A library that has these materials readily available for use (and NOT stored offsite, so that patrons must wait days or weeks for them) gives designers tremendous advantages in a competitive job market. To remove them in the service of creating additional “spaces for making” not only runs counter to the mission of a research university, but also undermines the goal of training makers to be competitive, innovative, literate, and resourceful.
Like you, I am passionate about art and design education and want to create more ways for practitioners to succeed. But cannibalizing the Fine Arts Library’s collection at the expense of studio space is not the way to do it. It creates a false bifurcation between creating new visual paradigms and learning about the paradigms of the past. It also feeds into an unfortunate “culture war” mentality that says that art history has no little influence on twenty-first-century design. (One look at the teaching evaluations of Profs. Linda Henderson, Ann Johns, Stephennie Mulder, Julia Guernsey, Cherise Smith, and countless other art history faculty, would disprove this.) You risk impoverishing the very students that you claim to support.
In our current neo-liberal age, it is easy to claim that a space is useless if it is not drawing significant revenue or packed full of people. I urge you not to fall prey to this transactional and short-sighted position, or to the argument that a group of crusty historians are now holding back progress by clinging to obsolete printed materials. This problem is much more complex. Thoughtful, intelligent visual culture of the twenty-first century rests on our ability to nurture a sense of continuity between past and present. Please, then, stop removing books from the library that is integral to the mission of the College. Collaborate with faculty in all the departments to ensure that there are lesson plans and best practices in place to bring students to these wonderful collections. And please do not alienate your constituency (and future alumni donors) any further.
Thank you for your consideration, and for reading what I have to say.
Villa I Tatti, the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies