Chance Encounters

I’m bracing myself for some rousing debates as we start planning the renewal of Alderman Library, a 1938 building that has finally creaked its way it to the top of the university’s capital projects list. I expect the first argument to come roaring out of the starting gates will be the usual books-versus-technology debate.

In this corner we’ll have the people who love to stroll the stacks and peruse the books, perhaps sink into the book-lined library aura that makes you want to read and think. In the opposite corner will be the folks who say everything is online, they never enter the building, and there’s never enough technology. Both will make their case with great passion, and neither will budge.

I see both sides of the argument but wish we could dig a little deeper before seizing the keyboard. I wish we could take the time to chew on our assumptions a bit before we fling ourselves upon our horses and ride madly off in all directions.

For example: If we keep buying books, where do we put them? How do we afford that real estate? If we focus on online content, what happens when the publisher goes out of business? Or when the hardware evolves and can’t read it?

I work in a research library immersed in these questions. But as I think about this Alderman overhaul, I remember a tour I gave last summer. I was doing my usual book-loving thing, scanning the shelves as we passed them, when my eyes fell upon the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) annual report from 1984.

My mind flashed to when I worked at the NEH then. I was the lowest grade in the government job hierarchy, lived in a basement rental in a neighborhood then known as “the Yuppie Slum” (now re-branded as “Upper Georgetown”), and shopped at the “Social Safeway” (abundant food and politician-sightings) and the “Soviet Safeway”(long lines and scarcity). I developed keen peripheral vision for cockroaches and parking spaces, and made so little money that dinner was often a lone porkchop (and a smoked cockroach, if it had been hiding in the gas burner). It was great.

I snapped back to reality (and attention). The NEH’s annual reports have been online since 1997 but would I have ever sought them out? Should the value of a research library–whose primary purpose is supporting serious scholarship–include its ability to spur your memory, bump you into something you hadn’t thought about in a long, long time?

And is that memory valuable? Is it useful that I can find and read books I read as a child? (Though the U.Va. Library has, distressingly, banished Burt Dow, Deep Water Man, to the offsite storage facility. I am comforted, however, by the catalog record’s pithy summary: “Burt goes fishing, takes refuge from a storm in a whale’s stomach, and decorates a whole school of whales’ tails with striped band-aids.”) Are moments like this silly and fleeting, or do they deliver something deeper? Is that part of a library’s role, too?

burt dow from amazon

I expect we’ll have some fun exchanges among the various stakeholders and, if we’re lucky, a nice, big, loud, passionate debate as we develop the plan for Alderman. It’s gonna be chaos and I can’t wait. I am sure we’ll eventually arrive at a good compromise: something appropriately Jeffersonian, that honors tradition and the future at the same time. And that always keeps Burt Dow somewhere.