UT libraries must be preserved

Al Martinich and Tom Palaima

According to the Daily Texan, more than 75,000 books, musical scores and collection materials acquired and maintained over many decades with great care and at great expense have recently been removed from the Fine Arts Library. The FAL was formerly a true jewel in the crown of research libraries on campus. The removal of tens of thousands more items was underway until faculty, alumni, student and general public protests late this fall led to the creation of a small task force to examine the issue. Many of these items are no longer property of UT Austin, but of an entity called the Joint Library Facility (JLF) under the management of Texas A&M.

It takes days and sometimes weeks for students and professors to get former FAL books and other materials, if they even can, on a non-renewable interlibrary loan basis. Imagine if the same policies applied to materials used in science and engineering laboratories and courses here. Would President Fenves and Provost McInniss tolerate regular disruptive delays of experiments and student research projects for even a day? How about remote storing or removing to the control of another institution supplies and equipment of the Dell Medical School?

One faculty member who regularly uses the FAL in research and teaching explains: “An essential research facility at a Research 1 institution has been severely reduced and threatened with elimination without consultation with the research faculty and students who use it and understand best its purpose. How can this happen?”

The Dean of Fine Arts and the Vice Provost and Director of UT Libraries decided to do it; and it was done. 

The Regents Rules and the Handbook of Operating Procedures of UT-Austin call for advisory faculty bodies at all levels of university decision-making. One is the Faculty Council Libraries Committee. UT also has faculty, graduate student and undergraduate councils, senates, and assemblies to promote discussion of key issues. Our University-long operated like ancient Greek city-states with key administrators “ruling and being ruled in turn” and consulting regularly with such bodies of democratic debate and opinion. But now like other universities we have adopted corporate structures and mindsets. Administrators make unilateral decisions, sometimes with irreversibly bad results.

Our Vice Provost and Director of Libraries has stated that by getting rid of books in the FAL and installing a high-tech space called the Foundry, UT-Austin was “changing (a library) user from being a consumer only of information to a creator of knowledge” because “we’ve always been in the business of preparing students with lifelong skills and to be entrepreneurs in an economy that enables and allows and almost demands that now.” This opinion is myopic. 

Consulting with faculty and students who know what specialized hard-copy libraries do for education and research would have made clear that knowledge is knowing, and that, by reading pages in books, periodicals or specialized monographs, every library user changes their knowledge and increases their potential to have new ideas and to see the world with new perspectives.

Many professors, lecturers, TAs and AIs engage in something quite different from “being in the business of preparing economic entrepreneurs.” And UT students should be doing much more than preparing to be animate working tools after graduation. 

We are a state flagship institution entrusted with educating and improving ourselves day in and day out as citizens, community members, fathers, mothers and yes, morally and humanly aware employees. We need to know and keep on learning about our own and other cultures and what it means to be human throughout history and across the planet. We need to think and care about one another in a complex world. We have a sacred duty to preserve the past and our own humanity. We need books to see ourselves and become our better selves.

Tom Palaima is Robert M. Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics and Al Martinich is Roy Allison Vaughan Centennial Professor in Philosophy.