Five Days of Hope and Despair

Here is a brief travel log of five days amid 21st century California.

Day One. A Virtual Library

Reader, I am returning today to the rather new, multimillion-dollar CSU Fresno Library. We’ve been there before, but I thought I would see whether things have changed from my last visit. It is easier to use than Stanford’s far larger holdings. Few students seem to check out books on history and literature, so recall is rare. (Few students inside know that it has over a million volumes and that its real creator, Henry Madden, was an eccentric genius.)

The glass and metal addition was underwritten by a local tribal casino corporation. It is far more lavish than the old library I used for a quarter-century: Starbucks inside, Wi-Fi, and plenty of lounging nooks. To get into the stacks, you go downstairs and push red and green buttons to move the huge tracked bookcases that are otherwise crammed together. I think the idea was to save space. But the inconvenience of waiting on slow-moving book cases does not seem to be warranted by opening up space for those who do not use books.

I studied ten random students as I walked about looking for six books. Four were engaged, eating and laughing, a sort of student-union experience surrounded by a backdrop of books -- reminding me of talking heads that do interviews with faux tomes in the background.

Two were on cellphones (loudly so). Two were video-gaming on their laptops (from a few glimpses, they seemed glued to some sort of road race game and a military-style assassination exercise). One was reading, at a table marked “Physics,” and one was typing. Twenty percent at work confirms my earlier visits -- given that the library has very little to do with students searching out books and articles in a repository, deferentially quiet in respect for other scholars, careful to eat and drink only in assigned places, and wide awake. Out with the old, in with the new.

Instead, the campus library that I saw is still not quite a library, at least by any definition that we used to employ. Most there had little visible interest in reading or writing. The stacks were for the most part not being used. It is part student union, part a movable Starbucks meet-and-greet over coffee and cookies, part a nice place to text, net surf, and play around with video games.

Better yet, the fact that it says “library” and not “student union” or “arcade” or “playhouse” makes it even more desirable. Today’s virtual student goes to a virtual library and does virtual research. That way you can be successful in that you are in “college” and you say you are “at the library” as you entertain yourself. Who cares whether someone knows the difference between the Parthenon and Pantheon or that e.g. is not quite i.e.? Get over it.

The popular culture changed the library; the library did not change the popular culture.

I have not researched the topic, but I expect that there is an entire literature on “reinventing the campus library” that goes way beyond e-books and the Internet, and talks grandly instead about democratizing “knowledge” and turning the library experience into something more relevant culturally to today’s students. Again, virtual libraries, virtual students, virtual degrees -- I just hope that one of the students I saw texting and video-gaming is not the unionized public employee of the near future, guiding the lead car on the soon-to-be high-speed rail to Corcoran.

If the new library is now designed as a valuable cultural nexus, to throw together all sorts of young people of different classes, religions, and races, and at least expose them to the idea of sitting in a comfortable and humane learning place, overseen by courteous and professional staff, where reading is theoretically possible, then it is a smashing success.

If, on the other hand, it is supposed to be a place where disciplined young people individually pursue real knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences, through self-motivated and faculty-guided research, then it appears an utter failure. Does playing a video game next to the Iliad and Prometheus Bound mean that it is more likely that the video game is educational?