In summary

One of only three anthropology libraries in the country is slated for closure under a planned transformation of the University of California library system. UC Berkeley students, faculty and alumni say the plan is a poor reflection of priorities and worry it would undermine the discipline.

Guest Commentary written by

Louis Freedberg

Louis Freedberg

Louis Freedberg is a veteran journalist and former executive director of EdSource, and serves as the director of the Advancing Education Success Initiative. He has a doctorate in anthropology from UC Berkeley.

Arguably more than housing and other issues that typically attract more attention, the latest battle at UC Berkeley threatens the heart of the university: its libraries.

Distressingly, the university says it wants to close three libraries, including its anthropology library, because it says it can’t find the money out of its $3.1 billion budget to keep them open.

It may not seem like much amid all the challenges facing higher education. Yet the fate of the anthropology library and its nearly 45,000 volumes are at the forefront of a planned transformation of the entire library system at the oldest public university in the UC system. It is only one of the three libraries in the United States dedicated to the discipline, and the only one in California.

The others are at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. 

UC Berkeley intends to shrink the number of libraries from 23 to 10 “hub” libraries, and seven “satellite” libraries, the latter with fewer services, shorter hours if budgets are reduced, and without a librarian in attendance in some cases. Others will be by appointment only.

The mathematics statistics library and the physics-astronomy library would also shutter under the so-called long-term space plan. Some of the books will be transferred to the main library, but others will be sent to its off-site “shelving facility” in Richmond, miles from the campus, where another 48,000 anthropology volumes are stored. 

The changes, at least in part, reflect a movement taking place throughout higher education in response to changing reading habits. Students increasingly are using libraries not so much for their books but more as study halls. 

But university librarians say the main reason for the planned closures is a budgetary one. They say that the library system has 40% fewer employees than it did two decades ago, even as enrollment increased by roughly 12,000 students. It is not, says university librarian Jeff Mackie-Mason, “a result of judging any discipline as less important than any other.” 

But what does this say about university’s priorities? Losing the anthropology library represents not only an assault on the most prominent symbol on the University of California’s seal (a book), but effectively undermines the anthropology discipline itself. 

The library is a “crucial component of anthropological inquiry at Berkeley, both for its legacy and for what it has to offer to future generations,” wrote anthropologist Charles Hirschkind, the department chair, in an anguished letter to university officials last fall. 

“The library is the central hub holding together the disparate and often disconnected components that make up, not just the department, but the intellectual field of the discipline on campus as well,” Hirschkind wrote. 

I feel a close connection with the university on this issue. I spent a lot of time in the library when I was a graduate student in the department – admittedly in pre-internet days when we relied exclusively on hard copies of books and journal articles for our classes and research.

Yet the testimonials of current students have been moving – many of whom recently participated in a “sit-in” in the library for two days and nights to protest the planned closure. They told me that despite the profound changes in how information is conveyed, the library still plays an essential role in the intellectual and social life of the department – and, in many cases, their mental health. 

What’s more, they say they actually use the books. Many of the library’s holdings, they point out, aren’t available online. 

“The University and the Library cannot exist without each other,” a high level commission on the future of the Berkeley library declared a decade ago. The commission called for a “serious major strategy of reinvestment.” 

Yet the university is embarking on just the opposite strategy, disinvesting in a repository of knowledge that encompasses and helps sustain an entire discipline, with special significance for California.

It is not too late to change course.

For the record: A previous version of this commentary misstated the university’s plans for satellite libraries.

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