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25 January 2005

Library fight at U of Chicago!

Ah, I love academics.

Now, for those of you who are not among the initiated, the keepers of
the flame of knowledge, the preservers of civilization itself against the barbarian mass of popular culture(ahem!),
you must know that the University of Chicago has a, um, reputation.

It is the MIT of the humanities and social sciences.  Just as MIT
students are known for being kind of strange and unnaturally dedicated
to their work (that is, they supposedly don’t leave their labs for more
than half an hour at a time, under an almost obsessive entrancement
with their work), so goes the reputation of Chicago.  They’re
crazy-intense.  Or so go the stories.

So Andrew opened up a can of worms the other day.  Then there were the responses: musings about being “regulars” at the libraryseveral combative posts on
grads v. undergrads (survey says that neither of these groups are as
important as they’d like to believe), and Andrew (true to form) has decided to simply drink.

wish my undergrads were like the ones jumping in on this
discussion.  I have several undergrads whom I have spent much of
my time with them teaching them how to do non-Google research (and
these kids aren’t dumb, either — although they’re no smarter than the
smartest kids at any major university, it’s just that there are more of
them here).  A friend of mine is the head of
instruction in part of the library system here at Harvard, and she has had more than a few undergrads who have spent three years here, but who have never set foot inside the main library.  How is this at all possible?

Library of Congress or the British Library).  We’ve got over 15 million volumes.  The library at Berkeley
was immense, and it actually feels small compared to the mammoth bulk
of what’s available here.  I have only once, in searching for an
obscure volume of poetry, run up against an item that we didn’t
have.  And the space on the inside of Widener have been renovated
recently, so it’s actually quite a pleasant place to work, in the reading rooms and
even in the stacks.  I wish I worked there more often. And it’s
all ours.  Harvard’s pretty snooty about keeping the hoi polloi out.  Berkeley this ain’t.

I think that my students may actually not know how to do
research.  I’ve found that even their Googling skills leave much
to be desired.  Recently, I pointed out to them that they needed
to evaluate their sources more carefully, and I pulled examples from
their papers, recreating their Google searches for them, and showing
them exactly how they arrived at those documents.  Then I showed
them that many of the sites they had used in their papers didn’t
progress past the first page of 10 results.  Then I pointed out
that several of these sites were, on some level, propaganda outlets for
someone with an axe to grind.  Which explains why the claims they
made in their papers didn’t cut it and why this had affected their

I have this feeling that if they had ever used a library that
wasn’t the undergrad library (which is a pretty standard undergrad
library — basic stuff, nothing really in-depth, nothing in there
that’s not in the main library, and plenty that isn’t), they might have
been more equipped to do real research.

Andrew summarizes:

I think it is fair to say that folks, no matter their academic
identity, who talk on cell phones, or who spend their time in the
reading rooms socializing and seldom venture into the stacks have a
very different relationship with the library than I do. They can do
these things anywhere else, the coffee shops across the street, for
example, but there is only one place where I can geek out of reference
material, smell old dusty leather, and bask in the kind of silence
created only by 10 foot book stacks running 100 feet in both directions.

I’m glad that there are undergrads who are like this.  I just hope to
meet some more of them than I already have.  And I wish that there were
some more grad students who liked this sort of thing.  Some of the most
interesting books I have read were in the Rare Books Room of the awful,
dark, troll-cave-like, Anglo-fascist-architecture Cambridge University Library
Rare Books was severe, austere, a “pencil-only room,” but it had
windows, creaky old books, and some of the oddest people I have ever
seen in a library.  And having been in a number of academic libraries,
I’ve seen some weirdos.  It was comforting and endearing in a strange, Britishly
uncomfortable way.

Love your library, people.  And please keep (or start) using it.

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6 Responses to “Library fight at U of Chicago!”

  1. Rod Says:

    Thanks for the topic. I’m a Chicago alum, and your late-night post whetted my curiousity.

    Ahhh…the memories. During an average day, I would be in the libary for several hours or more. Regenstein Library was 24/7, and many of us slept there. LOL

    Ironically, I worked at “the Reg” during my first two years of undergrad. So after work, I’d spend even more time behind the stacks.

    <chuckle>Unfortunately, I did not remain on the scholarly path; I’m a television producer. The philosophy department would not be impressed. </chuckle>

    Great post, thanks.

  2. Nassira Says:

    And that, mon ami, is why I realllllly want to go to Chicago for grad school. :c)

  3. Nassira Says:

    Also – a post from a lovely Mather friend of ours, in homage to Houghton:

  4. James Says:

    When I was at Harvard I regularly searched for books that were not available and often used ILL. Harvard’s South Asia collection is sub-par. They generally don’t buy books in Hindi. Columbia does. A library can be big, but if they don’t collect in your specialty, that’s not too helpful.

  5. Liz Renner Says:


    Funny you should talk about your students’ Googling ability…. (Sidenote on googling: I think it’s a testament to the insane fluidity of English language that something can become a verb so quickly.)

    I am going to FLY to Boston and write the darned thing for you if you don’t email me back. 🙂

  6. Brian Says:

    From the Pew Internet and American Life Project (which I found by way of the Boston College libraries site): a report on use of search engines, with the fun (and in my experience of my students, far too accurate) headline “Internet searchers are confident, satisfied and trusting – but they are also unaware and na