Trash, Pollution, and the Rural World

July 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have really enjoyed getting back into some scholarly habits the past couple weeks. I have even engaged in this primitive activity where I open a bound stack of paper and read the words, in order, written on each. I’ve heard that some scholars call it reading.

I was pretty excited to read some of the contributions to the Stephanie Foote’s and Elizabeth Mazzolini’s little volume called Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Culture, Social Justice (MIT 2012). The book collects a series of articles on the history of trash, waste, and rubbish, and grounds them, to varying degrees, in the cross-disciplinary nexus of material culture studies and critical theory. The book, however, avoids being too theory laden and manages to speak to practical issues as much as conceptual ones. This practical edge reflects a particular strength of recent work on the history of trash and discard.  

The article that caught my attention most in the volume was Phaedra Pezullo’s “What Gets Buried in a Small Town: Toxic E-Waste and Democratic Frictions in the Crossroads of the United States.” She looks at the politics surrounding the discard of PCB in Bloomington, Indiana and locates her treatment in a larger consideration of rurality and pollution in American (although arguably also in global) history. Marginal places, like the rural west (e.g. North Dakota or Alamogordo, New Mexico) become the settings for morally ambiguous practices. It is hardly a leap to apply many of these paper to my recent research in the Bakken Oil Patch in sparsely populated western North Dakota or role in excavating Atari games from a landfill at the edge of a small town in New Mexico. 

In fact, the long Western tradition of sparsely populated, “wild” places as the source of various kinds of corrupting influences (from the so-called Germanic hordes who supposedly destroyed the Roman world to the uncivilized “wildlings” in the Game of Thrones) has provided a context for activities that would be far more problematic in the more densely built up core. The willingness to treat the periphery in a different way also captures the binary logic of Western colonialism where behaviors and attitudes unacceptable in the core meet with ambivalence in colonial places.

This process of internal colonization follows the rough and irregular edge of a rural-urban divide across the United States. Pollution caused by extractive industries in, say, the Bakken Oil Patch in western North Dakota, is simply the “price of progress” for residents of the core and for small communities who see sacrifice as a road to deeper integration with the core and access to economic and political power. In Pezullo’s study of Bloomington, Indiana, the social, economic, and political power of companies like Westinghouse helped to protect the use of PCBs in manufacturing in Indiana even as the risks became visible and known to the community. The absence of strong counterweights to wealthy and powerful corporate interests pervades the Bakken as well.  

Pezullo’s observations on pollution in rural America could likewise be applied to the dumping of thousands of unsold and returned Atari video games in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. This moment in time reflects the “remoteness” of Almagordo from the prying eyes of shareholders. The presence of White Sands missile range nearby only reinforces the suitability for this sparsely populated stretch of rural land for activities set apart from the settlements and interests of most Americans. 

The next paper in the book looked at the discard and collection of trash on the slopes of Mt. Everest. Further chapters considered the pollution present in minority neighborhoods impacted by hurricane Katerina in New Orleans. Most of the papers considers the social construction of discard practices and pollution as mediated through varying degrees of economic and political remoteness. For anyone interested in grasping better how trash fits into our modern (and arguably premodern) world, the studies contained in this volume are valuable reads. 

The Archaeological Life of Contemporary Objects

January 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

As I continued to read around in the field of the archaeology of the contemporary world, I have become fascinated by the huge body of work on the everyday objects. Much of this work is not properly archaeological or even scholarly, but it points to some kind of abiding archaeological tendency in the way that we engage everyday life.  

Over the winter break, I perused Jonathan Olivares’ design taxonomy of office chairs and Lyle Owerko’s engaging work on the boombox. Both books focused on locating the objects in a larger social context. Olivares’ work, true to its roots in design, documented the development of the office chair through time, presented a technical vocabulary for the common features in office chairs, and provided some broad historical notes on the changes in the office chair’s shape and features. The book is filled with lavish technical illustrations with comments on both design and materials. As any good taxonomy, this book would allow a non-specialist to identify and describe a chair in an office setting. If we follow the author’s preface literally and understand the chair as a marker of status in the office environment, his guide would allow someone unfamiliar with an office environment to recognize the social hierarchy in place. The chairs also provide a way to consider the effects of Taylorism and efficiency studies on the office environment. The chair became a productivity tool as well as an object of status.  

Owerko’s Boombox project is a different kind of book. He provides little in the way of technical details, descriptions, or taxonomy. Rather than elaborate illustration, the core feature of the book is the series of remarkably detailed photographs of certain iconic boomboxes of the 1970s and 1980s. The photographs are large and sufficiently detailed as to reveal wear patterns, damage, and identifying characteristics of each boombox. You can get an idea of his photographs on his website. The detail is such that one can see the the various plastic parts that give the exterior of the boombox its complex and overwrought aesthetic. The part show the kinds of wear that reflect use. The bent “pause” button on tape controls reflected the common practices of pausing tracks to cue up the next song or even using it to freeze the music for the second to syncopate a groove or, in the most skilled hands, to loop it. Broken handles show the limits of these device’s portability and the practice of adding more flexible shoulder straps. The worn plastic faces preserve signs of how the boombox rubbed against fabric in transport with chips and dents reflecting less forgiving contacts. These battle scars complement stickers and homemade repairs to provide a roadmap to each object’s biography.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to conversations about boomboxes and their place within the “urban underground” of the late-20th century and photos of the boomboxes in use. While I’ll accept Olivares’ notion of the office chair as status marker in a traditional office context, I’m skeptical of Owerko’s more romanticized idea of the boombox as a markers of the urban underground. After all, what made the boombox great was that it was ubiquitous. Get any group of American “Generation Xers” together and almost all of them will talk about boomboxes. These are kids from the cities, from the ‘burbs, from rural areas, rich, poor, or middle class. The boombox was not iconic of some kind of subversive underground, but of the democratizing consumerism of the middle class. Maybe it’s best to say something like the appearance of the boombox in certain settings had a destabilizing effect on the expectation that common material possession would create a cohesive middle class identity. But this does not make a catchy title.

Finally, the books are not archaeological monographs or even properly exhaustive studies (although Olivares’s work is close), but windows into the life and times of objects. As archaeologists explore the contemporary world more and more thoroughly, these kinds of non-scholarly collections will start to assert greater value just as, two centuries ago, non-systematic, “amateur” collections of ceramic objects, fossils, or other artifacts became the framework for the first generation of great museums and collections. 

Landscape and History in the Maeander Valley

November 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over the past few years, I’ve thought a good bit about how to approach studying a region. At the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, I’ve worked with my colleagues to write the archaeological history of a microregion on the basis of intensive pedestrian survey. I’ve stood by and watched my buddy David Pettegrew bring together a century of excavations, survey, and texts to write the history of the Corinthian Isthmus. This next year, I embark on a project that will hopefully write the history of the Western Argolid. While the site is not dead, regions are where it’s at.

So it was with some excitement that I tucked into Peter Thonemann’s book: The Maeander Valley: A Historical Geography from Antiquity to Byzantium. (Cambridge 2011). This book was beautifully written, sweeping in scope, and conservative in approach. This final point is not necessarily a criticism.

1. No Theory. The book was almost completely devoid of explicit appeals to theory. The was no discussion of place and space, of place making, or phenomenology or any other late 20th century method of conceptualizing the contemporary encounter with the past. I’ll concede that the lack of theory was jarring, at first, but I soon got over it. In place of theory, the book is filled with careful descriptions drawn from the careful reading of a historical landscape through personal experience and historical texts. At no point in the book do you feel like the author is not intimately familiar with the Maeander Valley. (Thonemann shows his hand a bit more in the epilogue where he appeals to H. Lefebvre, Harvey, and others.)

2. No Archaeology. The books makes almost no explicit appeals to archaeology despite the presence of several long-standing excavations with Miletus and Priene being the being the best known. Throughout the book, Thonemann keeps archaeology at arms length appealing to it selectively such as when he notes the limits of archaeological evidence in documenting settlement change between the Hellenistic and Roman periods in the neighborhood of Miletus. Archaeological evidence is better, he argues, at showing activity in the countryside than explaining the nature of that activity or its causes. 

More interestingly, he provides little specific discussion of the results of excavations or survey. There is precious little on the details of ceramic chronology, the typology of fortifications, or the distribution of small scale artifact scatters documented by intensive survey. This is probably a weakness of the book, but his use of textual sources compensates for it in a substantial way.

3. Nature and Culture. The book does a remarkable job interweaving the nature of the Maeander River with the reception of this defining feature in the landscape. The discussion of the relationship between the river’s wandering course and its depiction on coins and in art was to be expected. What was more engaging was his treatment of the way in which folks living, exploiting, or moving through the valley floor interacted with the more substantial settlements on the slopes. Thonemann described the symbiotic relationship between, for example, the Turkish herders who brought their flocks in the valley in the 12th century and increasingly fortified Greek settlements on the valley slopes, and between pastoralists and cultivators in antiquity. The two communities negotiated agreements that ensured herders had access to grazing land and provided manure and weed clearance for agricultural fields. This is but the most simple of Thonemann’s examples of how the river, the valley, and communities interacted.

4. Diachronic and Dynamic. The most remarkable thing about this book was its diachronic scope. Thonemann is as comfortable talking about the sources of a Byzantine estate in the Maeander delta as presenting the complex prosopography of Roman period elites in the various ancient communities throughout the valley. Moreover, his use of these sources demonstrates a genuine understanding of the differing political and social contexts of these statements and the valley in these periods. In other words, Thonemann manages to study the valley in a diachronic way that does little to flatten the dynamism of the region in varying historical circumstances. This is not simplistic ethnohistory that searches for parallels in different periods to support a kind of environmental determinism. Thonemann’s comfort with Byzantine sources is particular commendable. 

5. Margins, Borders, and Frontiers. This summer I’m going to work in a valley at the very edge of Argolid territory. One of the issues that we will investigate is how these areas at the edge of a polis relate to the core and to the neighboring regions. Thonemann’s treatment of these issues through time in the Maeander Valley and argued that even the most seemingly obvious natural divisions between regions rarely reflected the political or cultural borders actually present. Thonemann argues that imperialism, more than anything else, shaped the territory of the Maeander Valley starting in the Attalid period and then continuing into the Roman and Byzantine period. These borders had less to do with the longstanding social practices in the region and far more to do with landscapes of control which the dominant settlement pattern often attempted to defy. Any natural boundaries persisted only because they received cultural affirmation.  

Finally, the book begins with a paraphrase of Marx and ends with references to Engels and E.P Thompson. That alone makes it worth reading.  

Writing the past in photographs

October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

I spent some quality time this weekend with Fotis Ifantidis photo essay: archaeographies: excavating Neolithic Dispilio (Archaeopress 2013). The book’s title refers to the practice of writing (graph) the past. The author’s work has fascinated me for several years and his interest in photography contributed to my own effort (in collaboration with Ryan Stander) to bring together images and texts from my project on Cyprus. Ifantidis book present photographs taken during the excavation of the Neolithic site of Dispilio in northern Greece. The site, outside of the medieval town of Kastoria, has been a model for innovative practices in reconstruction, documentation of visitor experiences, and archaeological practices. Infantidis work is just the lastest product at this site.

I am hardly qualified to comment on the formal character or technical merit of the photographs other than to say that many of them are visually arresting. The imagery did capture the process of archaeography. A number of the photographs captured the relationship between the individual archaeologists and their field context. Infanidis does this in a number of different ways: he depicts expanses of soil with the archaeologists in the foreground. Tools, hands, and the site are situated in contrasting foci challenging the viewer to consider what is the most important object in the scene. In other photographs, stacks of excavation equipment, laboratory scenes, and artifacts in storage bags provide place the contemporary archaeologist and the archaeological context in the same frame emphasizing the continuity between the modern researcher and the Neolithic.

Infantidis manipulates scale as well as focus. Many of the shots are cropped to feature long (horizontally or vertically) shots of earth, scarps, and landscapes locates the archaeologist at a smaller scale than the objects that they study. The manipulation of scale in these photographs contextualizes the archaeological project in the tension between the archaeologist and the context of excavation. A similar approach occurs with the Neolithic objects found in the excavation. The archaeologists hands, eyes, and tools connect the ancient objects to the modern humans. Infanidis interest in personal adornment shows through in photographs that feature either the jewelry of archaeologists or the archaeologist in relation to decorated objects. Contextualizing decoration and adornment in human terms provides, at very least, a useful reminder that individuals existed in antiquity even if they’re were realized as they are today. The tendency cut off the faces of individuals in the photos or to keep their faces and bodies out of focus, problematizing the relationship between the individual, the archaeology, and the object.

(I have become fascinated by including dramatic skies in my photographs of North Dakota and then cropping these to force the viewer to engage the scale of the sky here. See here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here or in a more Infantidis-like way here.)

The book lacks texts other than a very brief (<250 word) introduction. This seems appropriate for a work that focuses on the excavation of the Neolithic. The absence of text pushes the viewer to look for arguments in the images and objects. The viewer becomes the reader of the text and puzzles out the juxtaposition of archaeologist, site, and objects to tell the story of excavations at Dispilio. Like the site itself, however, the story is not linear or cohesive, but made up of parts isolated on the page and only rarely connected through certain overlapping (stratified?) contexts. The broken (but remarkably well-preserved) wood posts, the dimpled ceramic vessels, the modern hands and tools of the excavators, and the disjointed scenes of the workrooms and everyday life on a dig provide fragments of a narrative that the viewer can only generalize. 

The use of black-and-white photographs gives the book a clean, modern, dramatic feel and this was surely the intention of the author. On the one hand, black and white photography has long played a role in archaeological documentation and it long helped to manage printing costs of publications. The black-and-white images also ensure that the focus is on the contrasts both in a technical sense and in the tension between the archaeologist and their context.  On the other hand, I can’t help but thinking how color remains central to the archaeologists world. The fabric of ceramics, the glint of a “foreign” object in the trench, and the color of soils (not to mention the contrast between the sea, the sky, the mountains, and vegetation) are fundamental to the experience of archaeology and our experience of the past. Maybe Infantidis’s point is that by writing archaeology we render the dynamic into a world of contrasts.

Talking About Machines and thinking about archaeology (and teaching)

September 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

One of the great things about travel is that I got a chance to read a couple of books. I finished up a fairly recent classic of modern anthropology Julian Orr’s Talking About Machines. Situated at the intersection of Clifford Geertz’s “thick description” and Bruno Latour’s work on the agency of machines, Orr’s classic records the way in which Xerox technicians talk about their work, the machines they service, and their customers. In his field work, he followed a group of technicians to service calls, in the lunch breaks, and with their colleagues. The technicians detailed the both the routines that defined their workday but also the ways in which they adapted to the challenges of balky or difficult machines. The tension between repair procedures proscribed by corporate manuals and those preferred by the technicians is particularly interesting. The heart of the book is the idea that information between technicians is typically shared through informal stories rather than formal meetings, technical documents, or corporate training hierarchies.

Since its publication the book has influenced discussion of situated learning and, my new little obsession, communities of practice. Emphasizing the informal spaces and practices of learning that fed the formation of communities, Orr’s book shifted the emphasis from various well-defined structures to practice. This got me thinking in three directions.

1. Communities of Practice on Cyprus. In the paper I gave this week at the University of Texas, I rather meekly alluded to the idea that artifact assemblages and architecture might reflect communities of practice. This idea intersected with P. Horden and N. Purcell’s notion of the microregion, best developed in their substantial monograph, The Corrupting Sea. They argue that microregions are the basic spatial unit that defines social and economic interaction in the Mediterranean basin. The reason for this has to do with the high degree and intensity of regional variation across the Mediterranean and the concomitant interdependence of these microregions.

An approach that would challenge this structural understanding of Mediterranean social geography is on that sees networks of practice. Indeed, these networks could and likely did follow microregional lines as environmental conditions would clearly shape practice. On the other hand, networks of practice could easily follow the organization of craft or even social space of craft people. The difference, for example, between the distribution of certain kinds of churches on Cyprus and the distribution of certain kinds of ceramics suggests that the communities of practice constituting these two phenomena are quite different. The microregion is mediated by communities of practice that function along a range of different spatial connections that link together groups defined by shared skills, consumption patterns, and other social relationships.

2. Field Work. I was struck by how similar the stories used by Xerox technicians were to those that circulated among archaeologist. The genre of “war story” has clear parallels in both archaeology. War stories represented a way that technicians communicated solutions to particularly vexing problems, displayed technical prowess, and, ultimately, defined practice. Among archaeologists, war stories often serve established professional competence, to demonstrate the resolution of problems associated with the tricky social environment of encountered in excavations, and to communicate solutions to stratigraphic or documentation problems. While archaeologists maintain a robust body of technical literature (and technicians as a rule do not), war stories nevertheless make up a particularly significant aspect of archaeological discourse.

I can recall, for example, telling stories about a having to cut back massive amounts of scarp to protect excavators whose trench was deeper than initially expected, about having to arrange an apology to a very senior archaeologist who we offended during some of our work, and about the stratigraphic situation of some particularly significant finds. Most of these war stories are situated at the fringes of the kind of formal methodological debates suitable for publication, but do at least as much to establish professional credentials and to communicate social wisdom. Most importantly, however, are the war stories surrounding the use of digital technologies in the field and our methods for adapting technological tools for specialized use. Perhaps it is the disparate nature of archaeological publications describing and proscribing the use of digital tools in the field (or perhaps it the community in which I am a part) that leads to the prevalence of digital war stories. Whatever the reason, it certainly defies our expectations that the application of technologies will produce approaches to communicating in and about the field that rely more on practices embedded in craft than more industrialized modes of knowledge transfer.

3. Teaching. One of the things that remains baffling to me is how students organize themselves both inside and outside of class. My experience in the Scale-Up room has suggested that forced communities – at tables or in smaller pods – work to some extent, but these communities tend to be fragile and top-down.

What would be superior to these top down methods for creating communities of practice is to understand how students organize themselves and socialize outside of class. It seems to me that the most significant challenge in how we understand the Scale-Up room is how do we balance imposing classroom order against allowing students to express their own communities of practice. Among Xerox technicians, the lunch tables and the time before meetings are where communities of practice happen. The formal meetings and stylized manuals contribute very little to this discourse. 

As our university has articulated “gathering” as one of the priorities of the Exceptional UND initiative, it would be particularly useful to understand how they have conceived of student gathering and the formation of communities. My most cynical perspective on student behavior sees their communities of practice oriented  around spaces of resistance. For example, our department has a lounge space for students, but, in general, students prefer to sit in the hallway and carve out space for work and study in ad hoc ways. I know, however, that there is more to student behavior than simply defying authority just as Xerox technicians did more than simply delay the start of regular meetings with the war stories. 

Does a University Need a Library: A Response to a Response

September 25, 2013 § 8 Comments

Yesterday, I had rare good fortune. A blogger responded to my blog post. Now, I will admit that this blogger, Prof. Jack Weinstein, is a member my local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Academic Bloggers, Podcasters, and Self Promoters, but a response is a response

His post is rather straightforward. He argues that a university needs a library because “without one, it is not a university at all”, and states that scholars need access to currently library materials to fulfill their responsibilities as researchers and to engooden humanity. (I’ll overlook his concern for local issues such as the Exceptional (in a good way!) UND platform and the like. These are largely red herrings.)

It’s clear that the point I was trying to make was misunderstood. 

First, for some of us on campus the library is no longer our source of current research material. Through tricks and travel, we have developed creative strategies to gain access to the materials that we need for our research. Our strategies do expend social capital and involve compromises, but there is ample room for reciprocity because many of us find ourselves in the same boat. 

Next, no amount of funding will likely change this. Libraries are built over decades of sustained funding. The Mighty Chester Fritz Library has been slowly strangled for most of the late 20th and early 21st century. Without resources, it has not been able to adapt to the research needs of new scholars on campus, new fields and sub-disciplines, and even new directions in teaching. An increase in funding for this year or the next is closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Third, while I’m in favor of funding the library (actually, I would fund almost everything), I recognize that during dire economic times, some sacrifices have to be made. Moreover, funding the library has distinct disadvantages at this present moment. As Prof. Weinstein’s link showed, even such elite institutions as Harvard are feeling the growing burden of “mega greedy” academic publishers. One way to send a shot across the bow of these groups is to stop buying their journals and shift to open access solutions. Right now, a percentage of our library funding contributes to a exploitative and exclusionist system that does as much to limit access to scholarly work as it does to facilitate it. If Prof. Weinstein’s concern is over access the real evil lies not with cutting library funding, but with price gouging of academic publishers. At a moment where the flow of information is less expensive than ever before, the cost of academic journals continues to increase (as do these corporation’s profit margins).

This prompted me to make an argument comparing funding a library to the use of fossil fuels. As long as fossil fuels are available and funding exists, we will continue to use them. The alternatives seem difficult, unfamiliar, and restrictive. As Prof. Weinstein might argue, ambulances and school buses (and the North Dakota economy) run on fossil fuels and any effort to curtail access to them is tantamount of telling sick orphans to drag their own debilitated bodies to the hospital. (Ok, perhaps, I have overstated my point… but whatever…). But we know there are better alternatives even if they are painful. 

The cuts to the library are disappointing and unfortunate, but I just can’t agree that a university needs a library in a traditional sense of being a “book house”. In fact, with the exception of the brilliant interlibrary loan department and a handful of journal subscriptions, I manage to keep my admittedly modest research agenda moving forward and I suspect many of my colleagues could say the same thing. (I expect that funding cuts to the library here will accompany a relaxing of teaching and research expectations. After all, tough times require compromises all the way around.) I can see the library continuing to function in the future as a gathering place, access point for information, and an archive. 

I think that my experiences speak to the future of academic libraries. Funding will continue to decline and this coincides with a change in the landscape of academic publishing. Open access will continue to expand and scholarly access to pay resources will become more personalized and less institutionalized. (In other words, with diminishing institutional resources, academic publishers have already begun to recognize that scholarly materials tend to circulate rapidly and efficiently through social networks (e.g. academia.edu) that cross institutional barriers.) 

Maybe to rephrase the question a bit in light of Prof. Weinstein’s critiques: Do universities need libraries? I still say no.

Instead, I’d argue that that students and researchers need access to scholarly materials. Looking ahead, libraries will play a role in this process but they do not represent the only avenue. 

Does a University Need a Library?

September 24, 2013 § 5 Comments

Times are tough in North Dakota and the University of North Dakota is feeling the pinch. Among the many institutions seeing major cutbacks this year is the library. We have no designated book budget for this year and we are cutting back on both online and print journal subscriptions. There is no doubt that most divisions on campus, faculty, and students will feel the pinch.

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At first, I was mortified that we would be deprived of such a basic resource, but to be frank the collection in my area is weak anyway. I rely on the good will of friends, interlibrary loan, and some of the typical academic trickery in getting ahold of the books and articles that I need. It is not an optimal arrangement, but it is also not something likely to change with a bit more funding this year or next. After all, robust,traditional library collections are built over decades and a year of strong or weak funding will not substantially change my scholarly work flow.

Libraries on university campuses have already undergone significant transformations in the last two decades. Coffee shops, cafes, computer labs, and meeting spaces have transformed the libraries from bastions of solitary work to the new social hubs on campus. The new library is rapid coming to replace the venerable student union as the center of student life. To achieve this, libraries have begun to marginalize their traditional function as a repository of books. Libraries have come to move more and more of their stacks off-campus to free up space and to leverage digital access as a way to give access to resources that would take decades to develop in a non-digital world.

Digital resources have come to dominate the traditional function of libraries and a larger and larger part of their budget. Librarians, scholars, and students alike have decried the growing expenses of digital (and paper!) journal subscriptions. These costs have strained the budgets of libraries, and they have had to make tough decisions and curtail access to certain databases and digital collections or eliminate them entirely. Moreover, the move toward digital resources has taxed the libraries’ traditional role of as a repository and archive. Digital documents have their own technical and legal challenges, and the shrinking budgets of many libraries make it difficult to address these new arrangement while managing the venerable function of “book house”. Finally, from the fringe of the digital publishing world come a growing flock of scholars who are intent on challenging the static notion of scholarly resources and imagine the texts of the future to be dynamic, interactive, and remotely hosted documents that are as much a service as a resources. Wikipedia is only the best-known of these dynamic documents. Even more scholars have come to recognize that some form of open access marks the future of academic knowledge communication.

If I am honest, I suspect that only a handful of academic libraries will be able to satisfactory navigate the challenges of legacy collections of physical books and journals, provide access to high-cost digital resources, and cultivate an increasingly dynamic notion of text. As a small case study, I rely on the library primarily for access to resources and less and less for curation. I rarely venture into the stacks (other than the resources housed in our small, but efficient department of special collections) and even more rarely ask for the guidance of a librarian. The library of the future might look more like our current IT department than a brick-and-mortar collection of objects.

To return, then, to the issue of cuts to library funding. Like most scholars, I am officially and publicly appalled. The university powers-that-be have underfunded the Mighty Chester Fritz Library for years allowing the once proud “largest library between Minneapolis and Seattle (on the High Line)” languish. On the other hand, extortionate policies of digital publishers, changes in how students and researchers access material, and changes in campus social patterns, have made me willing to admit privately that the library is less vital for our scholarly lives. I’m particular annoyed with the current prices for online subscriptions and recognize that these reflect the willingness of libraries to pay as well as publishers to charge. If libraries stop buying these resources, the economies will have to change.

In some ways, libraries are like fossil fuels. There is no doubt that the rumble of the internal combustion engine is a satisfying thing. (I am almost at the end of my patience for people who insist on celebrating the smell and feel of books as an excuse for keeping them around!). Fossil fuels have transformed our world in good and bad ways. They have lifted millions of people from poverty, but also destroyed our environment. The only way to reduce our dependence fossil fuels is to stop using fossil fuels. It’ll be a painful process and even the most hardened greeny will catch themselves feeling nostalgic (even if its just for the putter of a Vespa rather than the roar of the muscle car!), but we can all see the change on the horizon. 

The current economics of libraries is not sustainable and supports a part of the academic publishing industry that is rapacious and, to my mind, unethical. More importantly, perhaps, is that our traditional view of the library has changed with changes to way we access information and curate knowledge and the way in which the university campus works as a space for learning. Change is painful, especially in these difficult economic times, but we might be able to see this as an opportunity to transform the basic structure of the knowledge economy.

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