Tuesday, April 18, 2006

At least there are no bonfires

Mes Amis

Sarah, over at Galleycat, has already covered this, but for those seeking clarification...

The University of Dundee was where I spent some of the best years of my life. Really. I had immense fun there and I was lucky to be taught by some of the people in the Philosophy Department: intelligent, respected types who knew their stuff. I think its a great university, I really do.

And yet I'm now on record as saying I'm glad to have graduated when I did. Why?

The library.

Recently there has been an outcry because the library is dumping books. With the closure of the Gardyne Road library, the Fife nursing library and various other key library stores, space has to be cleared (after all, the main library is only three floors). And the first thing to go: books. The first I knew about this was when I was told that many philosophy of science books were... dissapearing.

Now, at first it sounds reasonable: many of the books targetted for dumping haven't been taken out for over ten years. Of course, when I did my dissertation, I was taking out books that haven't been checked out since the late sixties. These books were incredibly useful for research into topics that were seemingly cyclical in philosophy (they fell out of fashion but showed a direct line to newer and more exciting theories and ideas). And besides, when most students do their research in the library they don't check out the books. I used far more books than I ever checked out. I took them to a study area, laid them out and did my research there and then. I know a lot of folks did the same. So when a book was checked out is no indication of its usefulness to students.

And then there's the fact of posterity. As Sarah notes at the end of the article there are some very valuable books kicking about in there at the library. More valuable than some people might have guessed. And what were they going to do? They were going to dump them.

Which is strange considering they're building a new extension to the library. Of course this extension will hold computers (they've already replaced several study areas with computers in the main library) and a coffee bar because it is "not strong enough" to handle books. Great stuff for a library.

What is most saddening about this for me is the fact that the books were to be uncermoniously dumped. No new homes, no library sales, not even an attempt to go to second hand dealers and say, "What could we get with this stuff?". I realise that the new mantra of universities tends to be "teaching not research" and that having textbooks rather than simply material of interest is of primary importace. And I think that's a sad thing. The university system these days often seems to be about bums in lecture halls rather than anything else. Degrees are ten a penny and its a real statement when you think that a good percentage of folks with degrees now go on to work in call centres and postrgaduate opportunities in arts based subjects are hotly contested because of lack of funding (I'm thinking very specifically of philosophy here) so that a lot of students miss out due less to academic capability that monetary stability.

And despite myself and other's cynisicm about whether they will remain good on their promise to rethink their strategy, I hope they truly have changed their minds. Taking this policy to the mainstream its like dumping books by Plato and Aristotle because they're not as popular as Jordan. One cannot deny that space is clearly at a premium (with the closure of Gardyne Road and so forth) but it seems sad to me that so many resources for research students and those undergraduates who clearly wish to read outside of prescribed texts were almost (and may still be) unceremoniously dumped.

But am I merely an old fuddy-duddy with an unusual sentimental attachement to bound paper? Are old knowledge and ideas obsolete and are certain philosophy texts merely "gathering dust" and of no use to anyone? The library are determined to continue expanding their e-database and I admit I would not be so upset if the books being physically dumped were translated into digital copies (I would be upset, of course, but not so much) so that the information and ideas (no matter whether erroneous or out of date) could continue to be a source of inspiration for students and researchers to follow. Because learning at university is not like learning at school. Its about expanding your own ideas and capabilities. Its about using the work of others as a springboard, but how can you do that if the work of others is unavailable to you? Some of the best and most inspirational texts I ever found were hidden at the back of a shelf in the library.

So I hope that the library remains good on its new word and that the cynycism of myself and others is unfounded. Because Dundee was such a fantastic university to attend and I'm proud to have been a student there, but when a university library has such a cavalier attitude to its books, it deeply saddens me. And this attitude isn't confined to one institution either, which is what upsets me more.

Au revoir


Update: And for those who think maybe The Courier's not quite reliable, here's the story in The Scotsman, too.


Sandra Ruttan said...

What the hell is up with teaching at the expense of research anyway?

Seriously, this is why you get inept people in jobs. They don't know how to think. They only know how to do what they're told. There has to be practical application of learning, and part of that is researching, being able to study trends and philosophies over an extended period of time...

God, I'm going to shut up. But there's been talk elsewhere of Scottish libraries in jeopardy, and I'm not happy to hear this at all. I own more books than our town library does, and that's a fucking tragedy.

Ray said...

Ach, it's fine - chuck the books out. I'm all for a nation of illiterates. Makes 'em easier to control when my evil plans come to fruition.

Russel said...


Well I'm safe... I'm not illterate: both my parents were married!

(Oh, I'll get my coat)

Sandra Ruttan said...

To cover your face, right?