Here come the book-cullers, a species far more dangerous to this state's literary, political and cultural heritage than the ordinary book-burners. For they operate under the protection of modern gods like efficiency and economy. Their latest ill-advised plan is to move three-quarters of the collection of literature, which numbers some 1.2 million books and printed materials, from the University of Arkansas' Mullins Library into off-campus storage.
That move would largely eliminate the library's invaluable function as a place for students and the public to browse in search of serendipitous discoveries.
This would mean the choice given readers would be severely curtailed. Those who use the library would lose the sense of finding hidden treasures they might never have suspected were buried deep in that library's commodious stacks. They would lose that "A-hah!" moment which comes with unearthing a book thought to be long lost or non-existent. It's a moment with personal meaning for bibliophiles the world over.
The result of this heartless purge of books would, to an extent, end the library's usefulness as a place to browse and so claim for one's own its treasures. For one might as well save a soul as save as a good book, particularly one that a reader has heard tell of, or even seen cited, but never before laid eyes on.
The university's administrators argue that the demand for printed books is low, yet browsers check out more than 30,000 books a year.
The university library has moved to cut its number of volumes with a secrecy that would more befit the country's nuclear arsenal than a library. There has been no public hearing or transparent process. In a curious way, this kind of hush-hush approach to a university's holdings is a great compliment to its importance.
It's as if readers are supposed to be distracted by the plans for a new storage facility instead of what's being done to the school's collection of old volumes--a crime against the art and science of reading.
Gentle Reader is being assured that a once great collection of printed volumes can be replaced readily enough by ebooks. Except that ebooks are awkward to use, and can't be checked out and borrowed with ease for inter-library exchange. To quote one fan of reading, "Print continues to be central to scholarship and we should promote it instead of making it harder to access."
In a cry from the heart to the university's leaders, one reader pleads, "I presented you with facts that I believe make a clear case against the removal of the [print] collection as planned. If you see merit in my argument, I ask you to weigh in and request a revision of the plan and save the browsing collection of the University of Arkansas. The campus community overwhelmingly wants to keep it. It is vital to the university's mission. It is the right thing to do. As the American Founding Father and President Thomas Jefferson said: 'Let us save what remains, not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.' "
The writer of this plea knows of what he speaks, for he was raised in a Communist country where the regime kept close tabs on what its subjects were reading. Why not just let folks read what they want to read? As if this were still a free country.
My thanks to Josef Laincz of the University of Arkansas Libraries for the letter that inspired this column. His point should be well taken by the powers that be in the university's administration.
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 07/08/2018
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