Emails re. Fine Arts Library’s Fate
Stephennie Mulder and Dean Doug Dempster
October 9-10, 2017
Greetings from Berlin, where I am working at the museum, attending conferences, networking, and feeling grateful for your support, which made it possible. I’ve been invited to give a keynote address at a medieval Islamic history conference in Bonn December (they specifically wanted an art historian to talk about how to use visual and material culture in the writing of history, ha!) to participate in a museum studies conference sponsored by the Humboldt foundation, and most exciting of all, to lecture at the Warburg Institute in London. So already it’s been a professional boon, and after nine years of teaching, a much-needed research respite.
I am writing you from a room in which I am surrounded by books: the rich stacks of the art library at the Pergamon Museum, where I am contemplating the possibility that I may return to my home, at one of the United States’ greatest research universities, to find I may have no on-site library at all. I know you have already heard from others, but I felt I needed to write as well because of the concern I have about the seriousness of what is proposed.
First, I want to start by saying that – perhaps unlike some of my colleagues – I welcomed the announcement of the School of Design and Creative Technologies. I think this is a genuinely visionary initiative that has the potential to respond creatively to many of the pressures faced by the arts and humanities in a transformative way. And personally, I look forward to being able to influence – through teaching and other creative collaborations – the development of film, video games, and other technologies in ways that would reinforce the centrality of visual culture and the development of essential visual skills in the tech world. I see this initiative as entirely complementary to what we do in the Art History division.
But it cannot happen at the expense of our research excellence. Access to an on-site library is quite simply the essential foundation for everything else we do. I see the following three outcomes were the decision to move the library to go forward:
- Ordering discreet titles from an online catalog is an impoverished research and teaching method and frankly, one I view as fundamentally impossible to sustain. Everything I do as a scholar in the humanities, whether in the realms of teaching or research, relies on the physicalityof the books, the ability to look at the images they contain and the ‘accidental’ discoveries that happen when I am in the physical space of a library. Nearly every time I use the library, I take a book or journal off the shelf, spend time with it *in the library*, making notes on images, text, or bibliography, and then return it to the shelf, often without checking it out. During this process, I will sometimes decide the book in question is not relevant and/or look at dozens of books alongside the one I came for, and I frequently find what I need for research or teaching among these ‘accidental’ discoveries. This is not exceptional but is so common as to be the definingway in which research occurs, and it cannot be replicated in any other way. In this regard humanities research is fundamentally different from research in the sciences and cannot be replaced by an online catalog system that would require the ordering of specific, individual titles from a remote location. To do so would be not an inconvenience, but a crippling encumbrance to our research and teaching methods. It is not analogous to the removal of the slide collection, which represented a loss in collegiality but not the loss of the actual method and outcome.
- I have serious concerns about the impact of this decision on our recruitment and retention capabilities. Our Fine Arts library has been an essential selling-point in recruiting top faculty and students who may not otherwise not wish to come to Texas. My two top MA students, one of whom I recruited away from Ivy League offers last spring, have already told me they would find it impossible to stay for their PhD without an on-site library. I can’t imagine trying to explain our library situation to future art history student and/or faculty recruits who may be simultaneously entertaining offers from universities with strong on-site library holdings. I, too, have been invited to apply to positions elsewhere in the past two years, most recently to Barnard. Despite some of the challenges of working in this department, I didn’t even seriously consider it, in large part because the combination of quality of life in Austin and research excellence in our department has made some of the drawbacks worth the challenges. The removal of the library would make that argument much more difficult to sustain.
- There have already been, and will increasingly be, serious problems of morale as a result of this sequence of events, among both faculty, staff, and students. This is not only because of the removal of the library itself but because of the wayit occurred two years ago. The faculty were informed of the loss of two-thirds of our library in a faculty meeting, as a fait accompli, with no consultation and no opportunity for input. There is something very urgent to consider with respect to how this process unfolded. I think what is most difficult for many of us is not the loss of the books per se, but what we fear it may say about how our faculty – one of the top faculty in this university and in the United States – is valued by our administration.
I know the pressures you are under from the upper administration with respect to allocation of resources, the campus-wide reorganization of the libraries, and with respect to broader shifts in the arts and humanities, and I want to end by saying that I know you have the continued health and relevance of our department, and our college, at the forefront of your mind. And I want to underscore that I really see SDCT as exactly the right move for keeping our college vibrant and looking toward the future. But moving to embrace new technologies while undermining our current research and teaching excellence would, in my view, ultimately undermine the future of our college as a whole.
Sending warm wishes from a chilly Berlin,
Dempster’s Response, October 9, 2017
Thanks for your email, Stephennie. “Undermining our current research and teaching excellence” is not an acceptable outcome. The question we’ll investigate is whether our research and teaching excellence could survive with the Fine Arts collection, or substantial parts of it, located outside the Doty Building.
I’m glad your research leave is proving so productive and refreshing. Just out of curiosity, how far do you have to commute each day to work with the wonderful Pergamon Museum library and is their library collection in an open or closed stack?
Mulder’s response, October 10, 2017
So glad that we agree about the importance of maintaining our research and teaching excellence – and I certainly have no doubts about your commitment to that goal. Your response seems to indicate that you are thinking primarily about the first point I raised in my email – namely, the practical problem of access to books. While that is a primary concern for all the reasons I indicated, I am equally concerned about my second and third points and their potential to impact our research and teaching excellence. These “soft questions”, so to speak – by which I mean questions of recruitment, retention and morale, are perhaps not as obvious or easily quantifiable but are, I think, actually much more of a danger to our ability to maintain excellence.
This is because a library is not just a place for books, it is also a symbol that powerfully communicates who we are and what our values are. The library operates as a library, yes, but also as a highly visible sign of our commitment to serious research and academic engagement for our current students, staff, and faculty as well as for potential future members of our academic community. This is an equally important reason that removing the library is a threat to our research excellence: one that goes deeper than simply restricted access to the tools we need to do our jobs well. I will struggle to put on a cheerful face for potential student and future faculty recruits about the fact that we have to order each and every book. To consider a future where I have to struggle to justify simply doing the most basic aspects my job is disheartening, particularly when peer universities are signaling they are committed to providing and maintaining support for research. I am having a difficult time seeing how we will be a stronger Art History faculty ten years from now if this initiative goes forward.
I would hope that at a minimum, if the loss of the space in DFA is already been decided, that an on-campus space will be an absolute priority, and that it will not be envisioned as a matter of bookshelves alone. We have a growing, living library that depends on our brilliant and knowledgeable staff, and they must be retained or we risk having a dead collection. I also wonder which spaces are being considered. I am sure this has come up, but would it be possible to consider converting some of the space in the VAC for library use? While I would grieve the loss of any part our beautiful exhibition space as much as I’d grieve the loss of our library, it seems only fair from a morale standpoint that if loss of space is mandated, it be equally distributed across the department, particularly considering we have already lost 2/3 of our on-site library collection.
To answer your last question, my office here is inside the library itself, among open stacks, and it’s been essential to my project so far to be able to read, write and think in one of the richest art libraries in Europe. That, of course, is the ideal we currently enjoy at UT, and it’s a crucial part of what has made us renowned. Your support for me in this research year makes clear that you value both the practical and symbolic aspects of access to a great library too. I hope we are able to find a balance that works for both the visionary new initiative of SDCT and the demonstrated excellence our Art History department, because I think SDCT will be most successful if it is built on our existing strengths, not in place of them.
Dempster’s Response, October 10, 2017