bits of knowledge

In the last blog, I mentioned the publication of the UC Emeriti Association’s bulletin, Newsletter 1.3, and its article on the decision taken already in 2014 by the Executive Vice-Chancellor and the UCSC Librarian to transform the Science & Engineering Library (SEL) into a space that would accommodate more students. Below, I share some reflections upon finding out that books of interest to me in the history of ancient technology were not on its shelves or in the catalog any more.

In the summer of 2016, after consultation limited to top administrators and the Academic Senate’s Library Committee, the UCSC Library removed 83,577 volumes from the Science & Engineering Library. They were not stored elsewhere as for instance the UC Berkeley Moffitt Library did when doing its fourth story renovation. They were not sold or given to individuals or to other schools, steps that might have taken time and been more costly. They were apparently shredded. A few books were left on the lower floor. The list of titles was eventually made available in two lists: list 1 and list 2.

I use the MacHenry Library almost daily for research and very rarely go to the Science and Engineering Library for history of technology items. It was December 2016 when I needed to consult a book on ancient technology. The book I was looking for is one of nine volumes by R. Forbes, a classic collection titled Studies in ancient technology. I knew exactly where it was supposed to be, as I had used the series a few times before. The whole collection was gone. The five large volumes of Singer’s History of Technology (1954–78) from Oxford University Press, or the valuable original French edition of Gille’s Histoire des techniques (Paris: la Pléiade, 1978), had also disappeared. When I learned about the removal of books, I wondered how many monographs in the history of techniques and technology had been weeded out. About two thousand items in my estimation, on the basis of the lists linked to above. More if one takes into account the fact that some of the one-line titles in the list of 83000 items removed from the collection represent multiple volumes. I looked into atlases also—there had been about 150 of them—and found by sampling that perhaps 65% had also been removed and destroyed. See my list of atlases.

My first questions regarding this particular removal of materials were about the quality of the selection and the availibility at other sites. I could see that important books had been removed, while what I thought were less useful books were still on the shelves. But de gustibus non est disputandum. The selection was apparently done on the basis of recent usage and acquisition (five years), which explains what to me looked like odd judgment calls. Everyone would probably agree that such a selection should not simply be made by quick mechanic means and that input from faculty and students should have been sought. Had there been a call to the faculty for input on the removal lists? Not that I know of.

Fortunately, those books or articles are still accessible in digital format or in print via Interlibrary Loan, ACLS Humanities E-books, WEST journal archives (Western Regional Storage Trust, part of the California Digital Library or CDL), JSTOR, JACS archives (Journal Archiving Campaigns, also part of the CDL), or (for texts before 1924). And fortunately also, since the library has switched to a user-defined needs after losing nearly all of its reference librarians or collection management personnel, I have been able to order new print books that I cannot find in the UC system or that are rare by using the recommend-a-purchase webpage.

This is relatively good news. As is good news—more broadly speaking—the fact that extraordinary open and free digital repositories and bibliographic tools are available universally. Examples of this are numerous: Perseus for classical texts and materials, the high-resolution photos of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Biblical materials, Neo-Assyrian documents, epigraphy collections, three-dimensional tools, etc. So, the abundance of digital tools—provided one knows what to look for—is a dream for anyone with limited access to printed books. Even more extraordinary is the instant, flexible access to scientific journals that university libraries provide.

But—to come back to the books culled from the Science & Engineering Library and available digitally—my experience is that it is not always convenient—compared to the quality provided by print—to read digital copies of books as page changes, size of images, column view for two-columned pages, difficulty of navigating indices, type of screen, make e-reading inherently cumbersome. Referencing page numbers in research is awkard and sometimes impossible. Permanent addresses for digital documents and digital object identifiers are only as good and persistent as the organizations behind the servers. Furthermore, some of the books and atlases that were removed are not accessible anymore in the other UC collections. For instance, one print copy of the Atlas Carta of Judaism in the Middle Ages exists at UCSB but is not circulating. The Singer volumes on technology mentioned above are available in digital format from five UC Library “groups,” but difficult to read in this format. I imagine that the use of the word “groups” means that each library system, for each campus of the University of California, has become a separate contracting unit trying to get a better deal from “knowledge-bundlers,” and that is a much broader problem.

The issue is not only the physical ease of consultation of the digital version or the print, if recalled from one of the repositories. There is also the financial and political matter of access, once university libraries begin to pay rent for digital pieces of knowledge rather than for the print version. Public and research libraries manage large collections of print materials. The acquisition of these materials in print gives certain rights to libraries and users. The libraries own the copies they bought and can use them with considerable freedom. In the past few years, however, libraries everywhere have been digitizing their holdings and purchasing limited rights to new digital works through contracts with distributors. The rights granted by the holders of these digital materials tend to be much more restrictive than the “first rights” associated with print copies. Typically, these digital copies are not sold but on loan (“license”). It is not clear how the commercial, legal, and copyright decisions are arrived at and what their parameters are. The universities have responded by encouraging the development of open source repositories (CDL, UC, etc.), but one wonders if they can scale up, especially given the financial and career pressures. The university is also trying to maintain universal open access as well as trying to control publishing expenses and subscription fees. On this difficult, moving target, see the recent failure of the negotiations with Elsevier. So, the rights of first use of the printed copy seem to be endangered by large bundling companies that prefer to rent knowledge for a short period of time and for a certain number of readers and have the means to impose their conditions on increasingly weakened libraries. The accessibility for the public at large is jeopardized because of security and cost concerns (no access to a Virtual Private Network or to university email, for instance). Richer and larger campuses can extract better conditions. The enlightenment’s ideal of common access to universal knowledge repositories is therefore threatened—not that it was ever achieved before—.

Back to UCSC and the elimination of thousands of books from the SEL. Why did it happen? One can guess at the local reasons: the urgent need for space for a much larger population of students; the pressure on admissions from the central administration of UC (UCOP = University of California Office of the President); the competition for students; the absence of public capital for building more residences; the tremendous technological changes and the broad perception that scientific culture and aspirations can be framed and acceded digitally, the disregard for the print medium, etc. This perception is reinforced by the obscure way contracts for publications are structured by bottomline-driven information and media companies. And Congress played an important role in abandoning the notion of a Digital Public Library in the late nineties and in extending copyright in 1998 to 75 years—in practice 95 years for the materials published between 1924 and 1977, see copyright page, The problem is exacerbated by the cost of access to public universities and the need felt by public institutions, including UC, to recharge expenses via units, departments, divisions, “groups” (i.e. UCB or UCLA vs UCR or UCSC). This is by default a “divide ut imperes” situation.

Given the seriousness of the political, financial, and intellectual issues I have alluded to above, I wish the leadership of the UCSC campus had engaged faculty and students in a much broader discussion before pulling the trigger on a radical transformation of the Science & Engineering Library.