American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 14

Scholars and Research Libraries
in the 21st Century

Billy E. Frye
D. Kaye Gapen
Patricia Battin
Richard A. Lanham


Statement from the Research Library Committee

The Future of the Library: A View from the Provost’s Office
Billy E. Frye

The Needs of Scholars: Libraries in Transformation
D. Kaye Gapen

Access to Scholarly Materials
Patricia Battin

A. Richard Turner

Electronic Texts and University Structures
Richard A. Lanham

Lights Are On,
Will Anybody Be Home?

A. Richard Turner
New York University

Concerning the title of this panel [Scholars and Research Libraries in the 21st Century], the one thing I’m sure of is that I’ll be dead for most or all of the period in question. At least there’s the solace of knowing that my scholarly progeny will be roaming the stacks.

But what will be their intellectual quality, and how satisfying a social, ethnic, and racial cross-section of the talented will they represent? My remarks are not about what research libraries will be like, rather about the nature and quality of their future clients. Does the responsibility of the research library commence when the professionally committed scholar walks through the door? Or given the contracting borders of the culture of the book, does the library bear a share of responsibility in educating the promising undergraduate, in enticing him/her towards a life in scholarship? I risk being off the mark of the intent of this panel, but believe deeply that an assumption of a business-as-usual flow of humanists into the professoriate, and hence into the research library, would be a serious error.

I’m therefore going to talk about current undergraduate students, who will be the users of the research library in the next century.

I teach three kinds of students. A small group I’ll call the Stuyvesant-Andover variety, largely at home in the culture of libraries and their varied contents. The rest fall into two groups. The first is mostly middle class, some extremely intelligent, but by and large unbruised by unsetting ideas, and often under specific vocational pressure from their families. The second includes some individuals of high raw intelligence. Not infrequently they come from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds, may be new immigrants, and first generation college attendees. For almost all of this group a life in scholarship is an unimagined possibility.

Of these latter two groups, perhaps half, I would say, are not in the habit of reading and writing. Notice I did not say ripe for remediation. Whatever their current abilities or potential, they by preference do not engage in these activities any more than they have to. Their cultural equipment tilts to the oral and visual, and a surprising number of them are fluent in the homo ludens sandbox of electronic manipulations. They often view books as so many warehouse inventories from which unconnected parts can be ordered on demand. The idea of reading as a meeting of interesting minds generally eludes them.

This is a blunt, perhaps caricatured, assessment, and in a mood of cynicism one might say fine, process them and send them out to sell used cars. But we know this attitude won’t do: in that mass there is an intelligent and inquisitive minority capable of a life of the mind of which they themselves have not even dreamed. If they are to have that dream, we’ve got to get them hooked on the library.

In a time filled with challenges to the intellectual and curricular status quo, we easily forget that the most genuinely subversive thing we can do is to give a student a library card, thereby potentially opening a world of intimate and often troubling revelations over which we properly have no control. But how do we get the student to use that card, to enter an unsuspected world? Our faculty lead-the-horse-to-water-and-the-best-will-drink mentality is unacceptable: we need to take more pro-active steps. Let me get specific and offer some illustrative suggestions.

First, I believe if two years pass without the student moving beyond the paperbacks in the bookstore and the reserve desk in the library, the game is usually lost. But we are culpable of usually not encouraging this sort of exploration. We need carefully constructed assignments that lead to the stacks, and in the library a tutor ready to stand at the student’s shoulder on a one-to-one basis. A tutor’s function would not be primarily to teach mechanics; students learn with alacrity online catalogue, and with passive reverence believe the completeness and finality of what the screen serves up to them. Rather these tutors would be coaches in the rudiments of scholarship, implanters of the notions that guiding ideas tend to determine facts rather than vice versa, that the patterns are in the user’s head, not in the terminal. In short, the tutor’s function is qualitative, to teach that use of the library is a matter of intelligent strategies, imagination, and discriminating judgment. I see not a few, but dozens of them in service.

Who would these tutors be? I would suggest dissertation-level graduate students, well founded in their disciplines, students who in teaching one-on-one will in turn themselves learn, learn both their subjects and the possibilities and problems of libraries, and in the process receive financial support towards realization of their degrees. Their preparation would require workshops and continuing interaction with the librarians.

Second, it is conventional wisdom that faculty fret over a lack of progressive intellectual sophistication in courses as students move through the major. Generally we do nothing about this, falling back on the time-honored habit that progression means a succession of courses chiefly characterized by a sequence of subject areas narrowing in focus. Perhaps not much can be done about this, but it would be possible to hand-tailor a series of progressively more complex library challenges for that handful of promising individuals who begin to emerge from the pack. This would require a careful tracking of courses elected, consultation between a given student’s teachers on a continuing basis, and the use of the sort of tutors already mentioned, working in conjunction with faculty.

Last, we need to identify those few rising seniors who are most promising. Each during the course of the summer or during the senior year should participate in the work in progress of a faculty mentor. Such programs are in place at some institutions, and the reports I have heard are enthusiastic.

You may or may not like these suggestions, but for the sake of argument let’s say that you do. What sort of issues would come up in trying to implement them? For starters, the clean budgetary separation of instructional and library budgets would be called into question. Worse, the uneasy truces between the value accorded teaching versus that given research, and between a graduate and undergraduate emphasis in use of faculty time, might begin to unravel. As everyone in this room knows, each institution has its actual practices in these matters, and its rhetorical dissimulations. God help that the discrepancies should rise to the surface. My suspicion is that open discussions of the sort of proposals I have made, or indeed of any others involving new relations of libraries to their institutions, would flush out a dirty little secret. It is that traditional vehicles of policy formulation, governance, and definition of budgetary units have ever less to do with the realities of the increasingly symbiotic relations of research libraries and the other teaching, research, and functions of the university. In short, we are trying to play a substantially new game by an old set of rules.

But I’ve begun to go down a road that my time disallows. I’m saying that in the interest of a strong and diverse cohort of tomorrow’s humanists, the library, faculty, and administration together had better take another look at what they’re doing to and for undergraduates, and I’m further saying that serious discussion of this will doubtless open a can of worms.

In closing, my message is simple. If we do not nurture a talented future clientele now, the research libraries of tomorrow may be like downtown Tulsa today, plenty of real estate, but few live tenants. That nurturing must involve cultivating the poise to process information in the context of those structured intellectual artifacts called books, the ones already written and the ones our students will someday write. Unless we impart this lesson before graduate school, the excitement of scholarship and libraries will be lost on our best students, and they will go elsewhere to make their lives and work.

In all of this, let’s not lose sight of what it’s all about, knowledge and its structures, not mindless safaris into galaxies of informational garbage. Remember the old Carnegie libraries with names of the worthies chiselled on the frieze? In weaker moments I’m tempted to climb up there and add the names Von Neumann and Turing to the list. But in a saner mood I’d settle for replacing all the names with words written by John Steinbeck a half century ago:

The design of a book is the pattern of reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer. This is completely understood about poetry or fiction, but is too seldom realized about books of fact. (The Sea of Cortez)

And, oh yes, I’d make the letters large enough so they’ll be legible to the tenured faculty as well as to the students.