Thursday, February 28, 2013

30th Year Reflections/36: Keeper

“The University has had records ever since it acquired a corporate identity in the early 13th century. It seems that the University's archives were first kept in St Frideswide's Priory before being transferred to the Congregation House in St Mary's Church in the 14th century. There they were stored in chests along with the University's cash and other valuables. When the Congregation House was burgled in 1544 the archives, were left scattered about and in utter confusion. Some were lost. They remained in a chaotic state until the early 17th century when the antiquary Brian Twyne put them in order. Twyne carried out most of the research in the Archives necessary for the compilation of the new University Statutes (the 'Laudian Code') which were approved in 1636; he also prepared the University's petition to Charles I for the 'Great Charter' of the same year. He was appointed to the newly created office of Keeper of the Archives in 1634.”History of the Archives, Oxford University

This is a longish quote to open up this week’s post, but I wanted you to get a glimpse of this history from a most distinguished archive. I experienced a small bit of this history during a visit to Oxford in 1991. For me this part of my trip—I had just come from Sweden after attending a conference on Swedish and Swedish-American archives—was something of a “busman’s holiday.” I was in the company of a good friend who completed his doctorate at Oxford and was back to do some research for a book. We stayed for a week, with accommodation in a bed and breakfast in North Oxford. Every day we would walk into the city, toward the Bodleian Library. Once there, we would part company, he to read and research, I to explore the city. Sometime around midday we would join up for lunch at a pub (the first being the “Eagle and Child,” aka “The Bird and Baby” given my love for all things related to Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings) and after our meal return to our respective activities until late in the day. It was a most delightful schedule.

I took advantage of my time by first visiting the Oxford Tourism office, where I found a guided walking tour, led by a most remarkable (and diminutive) woman who reminded me a bit of Miss Marple. At each stop along the way she would unfold her traveling chair, sit, and share the splendors (and associated tales) of each locale while we in the group strained to hear every word. Tour complete, and with a sense of the landscape, I visited as many colleges and their associated libraries and archives as possible. In each place I identified myself as a librarian/archivist and was generally met with a most hospitable reception and brief tour. My initial tour with guide included a visit to the Bodleian (with a special stop at Duke Humfrey’s). Along the way I enjoyed as many gardens, quads, sculpture, etc. as I was allowed, with side trips to the Botanic Garden, “Mesopotamia,” Oxford University Press, the “Jericho” section of the city (given my other love of the Inspector Morse stories), and anywhere else I could go within this wondrous place.

At some point during my visit, and with the gift of an Oxford diary from my friend, I discovered the title of “Keeper” for those entrusted with the care of archives. I do not quite remember how it happened, but either during the trip or shortly after my arrival back home to Chicago this title stuck to me as a nickname, given by my colleagues. It is a nickname that I’ve grown very fond of (as you might tell from the “vanity” license plate that is part of the sidebar to this blog). It is also a sobriquet limited in use to those who know me from my Chicago days, perhaps a term of endearment; no one in my present place of employment attaches this title to me or my work—“curator” has taken its place—but it is a constant reminder of what my work entails. We are stewards—keepers—of rich histories, both in terms of our profession and the materials under our care. It is an awesome (in the old sense of the word) responsibility and joy. I have this trip to Oxford to thank for the constant reminder.

PS One book I discovered (and read during the evenings on this trip) is Jan Morris’s Oxford. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in this city and its university.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Failure of Imagination

I have just finished the last chapter of my book on the closing of the University of Minnesota library school. All that remains, in terms of the writing, is an epilogue. And then finding a publisher. And then securing permissions. All right, there's more than a little bit left to do.

But in the meantime--and at the suggestion of a colleague long-steeped in the publishing world--I'm posting a small excerpt from the beginning of the book. I've framed the entire work as a four-act play (calling it a "biblio-tragedy"). Although not a play in the strict sense, I found the structure of acts and scenes conducive to the narrative I wished to create. Some editor down the road may wish to disabuse me of this structure, but for the moment this is what I've settled on as a means to express the story.

Here, then, is a segment from the "Prologue" to A Failure of Imagination: The Closing of the University of Minnesota Library School (my working title).

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass: for the which supply, Admit me Chorus to this history; Who prologue-like your humble patience pray, Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play. —William Shakespeare, Henry V

The weather forecast for the last day of April 1982 was not promising. Winter still hugged the countryside, reluctant to let go, cloaking the ground ten days earlier with two inches of snow. The following days brought enough warmth to melt the wet slush. But rain—mixed with flurries and gusty winds—was predicted for month’s end. The Mississippi River, colored by the sky a gunmetal blue, clove a channel through the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota. Students—not yet ready to don sandals and shorts but tanned all the same from a recent spring break—hurried to and fro across the pedestrian bridge that connected the East and West Bank campuses. The academic quarter was winding down. Minds were slowly turning towards warmer thoughts and an escape from the grind of the last eight months. It was a typical spring day in the upper Midwest.

For some at the University this last day in April was anything but normal. Three weeks earlier a hearing had taken place of the “Budget Executive”

to consider the priority of the Library School in comparison with the other programs of the University and to develop a set of recommendations on the actions to be taken with respect to the future of the School. In addition to the members of the Budget Executive, Dr. Warren E. Ibele, Dean of the Graduate School, was present, as were Professors Joan Leigh and Wesley Simonton, who represented the Library School. The hearing process consisted of a presentation by Professor Simonton based upon materials distributed in advance, questions and discussion involving all participants, and a final opportunity for Professors Leigh and Simonton to present any other information they considered relevant to the issues under discussion. The meeting lasted approximately two hours.
There is no indication where this meeting of the Budget Executive took place. Most likely the hearing was held on the East Bank campus in Morrill Hall, a pillared and bricked edifice on the picturesque northeast corner of Northrop Mall—and home to University administrators.

On this dreary last day of April the Budget Executive published its findings from the hearing. The report appeared on plain paper, unadorned by any official letterhead from the University that to a casual observer might link its findings to an office or administrator. Later documents would connect this report to the Budget Advisory Committee of the College of Liberal Arts. Titled “Report on Library School Hearing” and broken into four sections—Introduction, Supporting Information, Evaluation, and Recommendations—the three page document in essence marked the end of the fifty-four-year-old school. The evaluation section was devastating, but it was the recommendations section with its four points that sounded the death knell.

1. Admission of new students to Library Science programs should be suspended indefinitely effective with the Summer Session, 1982.
2. The Library School courses necessary for completion of the M.A. degree should be continued for three years and students in progress should be counseled to concentrate their registrations in their major courses so that they can complete them during those three years. It should be noted that all students can complete their major requirements in that time even if they register for only one course per quarter. The total time available to complete all other degree requirements would continue to be defined by Graduate School policy.
3. A task force should be formed to examine the feasibility of developing a substantially restructured program that would provide opportunities for curricular and research activities in information processing and management as well as in the more classical aspects of librarianship. This task force, which should include representation from the Library School faculty as well as others, should determine whether the interest and expertise exists at the University to provide such a program and should consider how such a program could be supported and where it should be located in the organizational structure of the University. This task force should make its report by June, 1983.
4. If and when the restructured program is approved by the Board of Regents on the recommendation of the President, the admission of students can be resumed.

The program was not restructured and therefore never approved by the President or Board of Regents. No new students were admitted. The library school was dead.

This is not an impartial account of the school’s closing. I was accepted into the University of Minnesota program in the summer of 1980 and graduated, in absentia, in December 1982. I was present when the visiting team for the Committee on Accreditation (COA) of the American Library Association (ALA) made its site visit in 1980 and issued its reaccreditation report in 1981. I participated in formal and informal discussions with fellow students, faculty, and administrators on the status of the school. Part of my second year in the program was spent lobbying administrators and regents to keep the school open. Three days after my final oral examination, in late September 1982, I left the university for my first professional position. Since then, over three decades of experience, I occasionally received appeals from the University’s alumni association for donations. In many of those cases I offered a polite reply: when the university could tell me why they closed my school I would then consider making a donation. Not surprisingly, they never provided an answer.

I had my own suspicions on why the school closed, based on my own experience, but never felt compelled until recently to search further for more definitive answers. My experience told me that the school closed because of internal university politics. The dean of the College of Liberal Arts, by his own admission in my presence, could not understand why he and the college were saddled with the library school. The director of the library school did not have collegial or productive relationships with the dean or other administrators; there was a clash of personalities between the dean and the director. Some members of the faculty had been characterized by the dean and others outside the school (and perhaps a few within) as “dead wood.” The library school faculty did not have a strong record of bringing in outside grant funding. A strong relationship did not exist between the library school faculty and practicing professionals within the university library system; indeed, in some cases these relationships were antagonistic. The school, although well enrolled, was behind the times when it came to new technologies and the impact computers were having on the information environment. A sizeable state budget deficit, passed on in part to the university, meant that some programs would be targeted for elimination. The school, along with other programs within the university system, was in the budget spotlight.

These were my suspicions, my recollections from the time. Many of them proved true, but it was not until I took a closer look at the history of the program and its interactions with the university and profession that they were in some ways confirmed. This is a record of that confirmation. Thirty years have passed since the Budget Executive issued its report. Many of the principals in the drama are retired or deceased. In my present position I have almost immediate access to most of the primary sources. It is time to tell the story.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

30th Year Reflections/35: Advocacy

“As the prevalence of e-books, Kindles and Nooks continues to grow, is it time to rethink our need for libraries in a digital world? Some say we need libraries more than ever.”Minnesota Public Radio, “The Daily Circuit”

“The Daily Circuit” is a mid-morning show on Minnesota Public Radio. One of the topics for discussion on Monday was “the future of libraries.” Because I was in a meeting while this segment of the show aired, I didn’t have a chance to hear the full discussion; I tuned in for the last few minutes; more on that in a moment. (The full segment is available at the site for your listening pleasure.) But this was not the only item that crossed my radar this week. Another story from the Minneapolis Star Tribune focused on security issues and the homeless at the main downtown library. And the ALA’s "American Libraries Direct" featured two articles about authors’ views of libraries and two more articles about publishers suing bloggers for libel because those blogger-librarians were critical of those publishers. It seems like there is no lack of opportunity to engage in discussions about the future of libraries.

I don’t have any comments to make (at the moment) on the issues of library security, the presence of the homeless in libraries, a blogger’s right to express themselves, or a publisher’s right to seek a legal remedy for allegedly damaging comments. But I did have a comment to make on “The Daily Circuit” and made it on their web site. My comment was directed to the final observation made by one of the guests on the show, James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. Tracy was on a riff that libraries as physical spaces are becoming less and less necessary; he was all about digital. To quote from him (as I listened to the whole segment online): “I’m saying their necessity is increasingly attenuated.” Tracy’s foil in this discussion was Kit Hadley, director of the St. Paul Public Library system. One of her comments spoke to the need for both space and access to digital materials: “It is in everyone’s interest that there be equitable access to the tools of learning and engagement. And right now that is only happening because of public libraries.” At the end of the segment, when Tracy made the observation—based on a conversation he had with the chancellor of Oxford University—that 90% of universities (and, I assume, their libraries) will be eliminated in the next half century, I thought he was talking through his hat. I said as much in my comment. Most of the listener comments on the air (and on the web site) seemed directed to the need for the library as a physical space, as a place for those who—for whatever reason—cannot get access to these materials and tools in their home or other spaces, and as a space that reflects—and is part of—a community. Tracy disagreed with Hadley on the access issue—“I think a lot of this is very 'presentist'”—and thought that the issue of a “digital divide” was going to disappear in ten or twenty years (which Hadley also disagreed with).

All of this—leaving Tracy’s name dropping of the Oxford chancellor aside—presents me with quite a bit to think about as I prepare for the Minnesota Library Association’s “Legislative Day” in early March. The last time I actively engaged in an on-site lobbying effort for libraries was as part of an ALA effort decades ago. I’ve kept up letter writing and phone calls, but now I need some “face time.” I’m long overdue to get back into the game with some face-to-face conversations with legislators on library issues. The MLA legislative committee has been hard at work developing a platform statement. This is now in my e-mail in-box waiting review. A briefing will also be held the evening before we make our way through the corridors of power. I’m looking forward to the opportunity and hope you take every chance to lobby for libraries. The landscape may be changing, but we need to assure that all have access to tools and materials that will improve individual lives, create opportunities for education and training, and build stronger communities.

Monday, February 18, 2013

30th Year Reflections/34: Ethos

“From the time we are born, the narrative cradle of story rocks us to the collective heartbeat of our species, ushering us across the threshold of consciousness and into the domain of humanity.” — Marshall Gregory, Shaped By Stories: The Ethical Power of Narratives

I came across Gregory’s book quite by accident. A recent “Weekly Briefing” post from the Chronicle of Higher Education led me to an article/obituary about Gregory (he passed away at the age of 72 after a career as English professor at Butler University) that intrigued me about the man and his work. I wanted to read more by him, and so found his Shaped By Stories on our shelves. At the moment I’m about half way through the volume, so will not unpack all of his arguments here. I will say that the book is worth reading. I will also say that the sentence quoted above is one of the most lovely I have read in some time. There are others like it in the book.

Part of what caught my attention was the title. I am drawn to stories—as perhaps some of these posts give witness to—and agree with Gregory that there are various powers in narrative that we sometimes employ in the classroom, or with our colleagues. What is key to understanding his work is the assertion that our obsession with stories—and his prior claim that we are, indeed, obsessed with stories—“exerts a potentially serious influence on [our] ethos: on the kinds of persons [we] turn out to be.” Ethos, as Gregory points out, is “the Greek word for character…to persons as ethical agents, as people who make decisions about good and bad and who decide their own conduct.”

His book has caught me at what might be termed a tender moment. I have been reminded in very recent days of my own ethos, of the decisions I have made (for good or ill), and in the nature of my own conduct. I have made both good and bad decisions during my career. At times I have conducted myself in an honorable manner, at other times not. I am not proud of the latter. In some cases there is a sense of unfinished business, of a need to ask forgiveness, of being reconciled. These are not terms bandied about in library school, but perhaps they should be. We need to spend some time in the classroom, and in professional development, thinking about what it means to be an ethical agent.

This is not a confessional—although confession is good for the soul—but perhaps more rightly a reminder of our humanity. We all have flaws. We have our good days and our bad. Perhaps the question to ask (among the many that we could ask) is what kind of ethos do we bring to our work? As I write this it is now Monday morning. I’m struggling with the fact that I’m three or four days late in posting this piece; it runs against my character—or my desired character—to be late, to not fulfill a promise. At the same time, I look at the week ahead, of meetings and classes already on the calendar, as new opportunities to connect my ethos with each of these events. What will I bring to each day and to each person I encounter?

A passage springs to mind from another story—one of my favorites: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. At one point, when Frodo and Sam are held captive by Faramir, a crisis is presented to Faramir in the form of the ruling ring. Sam has inadvertently disclosed the Hobbit’s possession of the Ring of Power to Faramir, a prince of Gondor. Trying to recover the moment, Sam says “Don’t you go taking advantage of my master because his servant’s no better than a fool. You’ve spoken very handsome all along, put me off my guard, talking of Elves and all. But handsome is as handsome does we say. Now’s a chance to show your quality.” Faramir, faced with both a crisis and a challenge, displays his own ethos. At the moment of decision, Faramir utters these words: “And here in the wild I have you: two halflings, and a host of men at my call, and the Ring of Rings. A pretty stroke of fortune! A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality!” A short time later the crisis has passed. Faramir will leave the ring with the Hobbits. He says: “We are truth-speakers, we men of Gondor. We boast seldom, and then perform, or die in the attempt. Not if I found it on the highway would I take it I said. Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them.”

What is our ethos? What character do we bring to the workplace each day? Who are our models, the people we wish to emulate? Do we have a Faramir to our Sam?

Friday, February 8, 2013

30th Year Reflections/33: Timbuktu

“One week after Islamic militants fled Timbuktu under French bombing strikes, preservationists are deeply uncertain about how to continue protecting the city’s priceless ancient documents — a conundrum that cuts to the heart of how treasures are safeguarded through political upheaval in places where locals have little trust in government.” -- Vivienne Walt, Time Magazine

When I was much younger I occasionally would hear someone utter a mysterious phrase: “from here to Timbuktu.” I never quite understood what the phrase meant, except that Timbuktu was a place far, far away. If someone told me they were going to kick me “from here to Timbuktu” (not that such a thing ever happened) then chances were good that I was hightailing it out of there before they had the opportunity to execute the first kick. It was not until much later than I learned that Timbuktu was a real place, and later still when I finally located it on a map. The last and greatest disclosure about Timbuktu came to my ears sometime around 1998, perhaps through the pages of the National Geographic or the PBS documentary by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. However it was that I heard the news, I was stunned and excited to hear about so rich a cache of manuscripts and the efforts being made to preserve them.

Then came the news that the manuscripts had been destroyed by Islamic militants during their occupation of the city, followed by other news that contradicted the first: the majority of the manuscripts had been saved by the thirty or forty families who have held private custody for generations, hiding them now and again from invading forces. This little tidbit was then followed up other accounts, including the one in Time, that Timbuktu families were reluctant to part with the manuscripts in favor of government ownership; that the government was not stable enough, or trustworthy enough to gain custody of the manuscripts. Even the United Nations seems puzzled with how to achieve long-term preservation of the manuscripts. We may, indeed, be witness to the destruction of another piece of the world’s culture. There is at least one project in place, the Tombouctou Manuscript Project, that offers some hope in the other direction.

And we have seen this happen before. One only needs to go back a short distance in time to recall stories on the destruction of books and manuscripts at the Institut d'Égypte in Cairo in 2011, the Iraq National Library and Archive in 2003, or the National and University Library in Sarajevo in 1992. (An article on Wikipedia contains a fuller list.) Libraries and archives, by their very natures, can become cultural, political, or military targets. Outside the rule of law or a democratic tradition, these cultural repositories may occupy unstable ground. But even within our own society we can point to a destruction of libraries or archival collections through natural disasters (e.g. Katrina), inept management (Ruskin College), or even by an act of government (burning of the Library on Congress by the British in 1812, or the University of Alabama Library by Union forces during the Civil War). Some destruction may be well-intentioned or part of a regular schedule. I have few concerns about the latter, but some hesitancy about the former. Even in some of our public institutions (e.g. schools) it might be argued that our libraries are disappearing (or perhaps becoming invisible) because school districts so often target librarians and media specialists as the first to be dismissed during a fiscal crisis and spend little to no money on library resources (arguing, as many have, that the public library will meet the need).

You may know of other examples of archival or library destruction. I’m not crying out that it is time to rush to the barricades in defense of all things bibliographic or archival. But what I am asking for is some sort of eternal vigilance that makes this an unending concern for the profession.