The Value of the Library to a Liberal Arts Education

John Unsworth

Brookens Library, University of Illinois-Springfield, May 23rd, 2006

I'm honored to address you on the 30th anniversary of the dedication of the Brookens Library, and I promise to keep my remarks brief: over the years I have learned that the shorter my remarks, the more people like them. Jane Treadwell asked if I would speak to you tonight about the value of the library to a liberal arts education, and I'm pleased to take up that topic.

"The purpose of a liberal arts education is to make your mind a fit place to spend the rest of your life:" this is an assertion I remember from my childhood--I grew up on the campus of Smith College, and this was said by the man who was then president of Smith, Tom Mendenhall, a naval historian. I think it's the best definition I've heard of what we do, or should do, with the pre-professional, exploratory and mind-expanding undergraduate years. The point of these years is not only to furnish the mind with the classics, or to expose the inexperienced to the depth and diversity of history and the present; the point is to teach the owner of that mind how to find suitable furniture in the future: how to seek out ideas, do research, to learn how to learn.

The humanities are at the core of a liberal arts education, because they represent the historical, aesthetic, intellectual, and moral basis of the rest of what we teach in the university, in more specialized programs of study--and indeed, the liberal arts were the core curriculum of the medieval university. The liberal arts no longer mean the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) plus the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy): we now mean something more expansive in terms of subject-matter, but still general-purpose rather than professionally oriented. We also mean this education to be available to a broader segment of the population--much broader--than it was in the medieval university, where education of any kind was for the ruling class ("free men"), and others, if they were skilled and fortunate, got training in "the servile arts." As the definition of the liberal arts and its appropriate audience has expanded, particularly in the last century, so has the importance of the library.

Libraries consist of collections, expertise, and facilities. Brookens library, for example, has a collection of more than 1.8M microforms, half a million books, 200,000 government publications, 3,500 movies in various media, 2,000 journal subscriptions, and nearly 100 licensed databases, plus computer software, maps, and audio recordings on vinyl and CD. Brookens also houses archives and special collections, with regional history records and manuscripts. The people who work in Brookens provide collection development and technical services to build and maintain those collections, reference and advisory services in support of the users of those collections, and many other forms of expertise, including access to the helpdesk for educational technology, thereby combining access to information with support for users of the technology through which we increasingly have that access--a sensible idea, and one that I've recently seen implemented in other places, like Kenyon College, for example.

Beyond collections and expertise, libraries like Brookens are facilities. Facilities may be physical or virtual, but they "facilitate" something--access to the collections or collaboration with people, for starters. The library is the laboratory for the liberal arts: it is the physical and intellectual space in which ideas are explored, tested, invalidated, or proven. The library is typically the intellectual commons of the university or college in which it exists, too: it is one of the few parts of the modern university or college that belongs equally to everyone: it is intellectual infrastructure for education and research. Increasingly, the library serves its infrastructural function online, providing searchable databases to faculty and students, answering reference questions through email or instant messaging, organizing and presenting journals and books in digital form. But since we still have physical collections, and we still collaborate face-to-face, the library is important as a physical space--and I think libraries will continue to be important as physical spaces, even if many more of our collections are digitized, not only because of the archives that are too deep to imagine digitizing in our lifetimes, but also because of the increasing importance of collaboration and expert consultation, in our information-seeking and information-making activities. Even in the humanities, which has clung to the "lone scholar" model of intellectual activity for longer than most fields, we are seeing an increase in collaborative work and (in my experience, at least) a new role for librarians as consultants and sometimes co-creators. In recent decades, we've seen a shift in the allocation of library space, as infrequently used materials have been moved to remote storage sites, but the space freed up by doing that has often been repurposed to support group-work around information resources, and consultation with library staff.

So, we have assembled collections, we have hired expertise, we have built the physical and the virtual facilities to make those things available. What remains? Bringing users into the collections and the facilities: if we don't do that, the rest of the investment isn't worth it, really--if the intellectual commons is empty, or under-used, it is difficult to imagine that a liberal arts education is actually being provided. Libraries themselves are not totally in control of this aspect of their situation, either: a great deal depends on how the library is positioned, as a resource, in the courses being taught by the institution's faculty. Often, the library is introduced to undergraduates in the context of a freshman course that involves writing a research paper: I suppose this is better than not introducing it to undergraduates at all, but only just barely. To associate the library with the research paper ties it, in the mind of the student, to something foreign, to an exercise that often amounts to little more than summarizing the ideas of others, and an unpleasant exercise at that. I know I'm being hard on the research paper--but really, it is a rare undergraduate who enjoys writing research papers, and an even rarer one who creates any new knowledge by doing so.

I think there are better ways for the library to be part of a liberal arts education, and I think it is incumbent on faculty to come up with better ways. Having said that, and since I am also a faculty member, I want to spend the remaining few minutes describing for you a course that I have just finished teaching to graduate students in library and information science and in English, but which I have also taught successfully to undergraduates English majors, and to freshman and sophomores who thought they might want to major in English. In my experience in teaching this course, from 1998 to 2006, it drives students into the library in ways that no research paper would do, introduces them to more aspects of the library collections than they have ever encountered before, and puts them in need of consultation from library staff, which is also--for many of them--a new experience. What is this erudite course? 20th-century American Bestsellers.

Students begin this course by choosing one bestseller from a list of the top ten (or in later years, fifteen) annual fiction bestsellers in the 20th century. That title must be one that no one has ever picked before, and each assignment in the series of assignments that student completes goes into a publicly accessible database, which now contains detailed treatments of 337 titles. To give you a sense of the range represented in these lists, and the range of student interests, here are the books chosen and worked up this past spring, by my most recent batch of students:

Each student submits to the publicly available database five assignments on his or her title over the course of the semester, beginning with a bibliographical description of a first edition, proceeding to a publication and performance history, a biographical sketch of the author, a reception history, and finally a critical essay. The first two assignments on this list are quite factual, and don't even require students to write complete sentences, but they present other challenges instead; the biographical sketch and the reception history require intelligent paraphrase and organization of research sources, and only when they reach the final assignment are students asked to present an argument of their own about their book--and by this time, they are arguably experts on their subjects.

At the risk of making you feel as though perhaps you are taking this class, I'd like to explain a little bit about these assignments and why they induce a new experience of the library, at least for undergraduates. In the first assignment, students have to obtain--at least for the purposes of observation and description--a first edition of their book. For most bestsellers, this is easily done through online used book sellers, usually for $20 or less--but in many cases, students can also find first editions in library collections and sometimes in special collections. Students who visit special collections for this assignment are usually doing so for the first time, or at least that's what they tell me. For this first assignment, they are also asked to use a descriptive vocabulary that's as alien as wine-tasting vocabulary to most of them: they have to learn how to describe paper and binding, typefaces and endpapers. They are also asked to locate the manuscript of the book, which requires them to use the National Union Catalogue or online Finding Aids, or both. For pagination and title-page transcription, they are advised to consult Philip Gaskell's A New Introduction to Bibliography--which for most students is also their first introduction to bibliography. Here's Karin Suni's paper description in her entry on the most bibliographically unusual title this semester, Nick Bantock's The Golden Mean:

The paper has a straight edge on all sides and is coated to make it both smooth and glossy to better display the illustrations. The color of the paper varies usually forming a page border for the illustrative matter. There are a total of five different paper colors. Pages 1-6, 43-44, 47-48 are white. Pages 7-8, 11-12, 15-16, 19-20, 23-24, 29-30, 33-34, 37-38, 41-42 are pale yellow and have an open weave cloth faux texture. Pages 45-46 are moderate olive brown and have a parchment faux texture. Pages 21-22, 27-28 are light olive brown with a wood grain faux texture. Pages 9-10, 13-14, 17-18, 25-26, 31-32, 35-36, 39-40 are dark olive brown with a stone faux texture.

The second assignment is the most challenging, in terms of library research: students are asked things like:

To answer these questions, students consult Worldcat, Publisher's Weekly, Bowker's Annual, the National Union Catalogue, Books in Print, Tebbel's History of American Publishing, various books on bestsellers, newspaper collections (including, increasingly, ProQuest's online historical newspaper collections), Lexis-Nexis, Magill's Cinema Annual (or more likely, the Internet Movie Database), and many, many other sources. Again, for many undergraduate students, this is the first time they have done research in newspaper collections or trade periodicals, consulted WorldCat or Books in Print, or used Lexis-Nexis. Here's some of the advertising copy that Adam Doskey found, for what was arguably the most-hyped title of the spring semester, The World According to Garp:
A May 7, 1978 full-page advertisement from Kroch’s and Brentano’s Bookstore in the Chicago Tribune, which also ran in the May 7, 1978 issue of the Los Angeles Times for B. Dalton Books:
“The book of the year – the most powerful and profound novel about women written by a man in our generation.” – Stephen Becker, Chicago Sun-Times [photograph of dust jacket] THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP has just been published after an extraordinary groundswell of advance acclaim. Among the early readers were Mario Puzo (“a marvelously funny, sad book, a joy to read”) … Gay Talese (“a remarkable novel by an extraordinary writer”) … Kay Boyle (“brilliant … sheer magic”) … Hilma Wolitzer (“Irving is the most inventive writer I know and his inventions become flesh”)… and Stanley Elkin (“John Irving used to be a promising writer. With his wonderful new novel he has kept all his promises and doesn’t owe anybody a damn thing”).

The biographical sketch asks students for basic factual information about the author's life (date of birth, nationality, gender, place of birth, family history, education, age at first publication, cause of death, location of papers), and it also asks students to consider how events in the author's biography or contemporaneous public events might have contributed to the novel, what the novel's impact on the author's subsequent career might have been, whether there were interesting legal, commercial or personal events associated with the publication of this novel, etc. Students working on living writers will often try to contact them for some of this information, and they occasionally hear back--Danielle Steele, for example, is a good correspondent. More generally, they consult the American National Biography, the Biography and Genealogy Master Index, Contemporary Authors, the Dictionary of American Biography and other resources, many of which are now searchable online. Students also sometimes find resources that I would not have predicted would be out there--for example, Lisa Oliverio's discovery that her author, Taylor Caldwell, had extensive FBI files that could be found and searched on the Web. Here's an excerpt from the biography of the author who, I think, qualifies as this spring's most eccentric:

Caldwell had always been right wing, actively participating in the anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby. According to documents found in the FBI files on her activities, Caldwell wrote letters supporting the internment of all Japanese, Italian, and German Americans because they are all “enemies.” By the time she published Grandmother and the Priests, she had become rabidly anti-Communist. Friends with Joseph McCarthy, Caldwell cites him fondly for his prescience, even in 1963. . . . The FBI files repeatedly conclude that no action is taken because she has a “penchant for intermingling fact and fiction” and she often displays the imagination found in her work.

The reception history again sends students back to newspapers and periodicals, not only for contemporaneous reception, but for reception more than five years after the book's publication: for many books, there is none of that, but for some, there is an academic afterlife, and sometimes in an author's later interviews or obituaries there may be interesting information about reception. Students consult the MLA bibliography, JSTOR, the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, Infotrac databases like Expanded Academic Index, the Book Review Digest, Gale reference works like Contemporary Literary Criticism, Facts on File, and other resources. Joe Peeples, researching the spring's most controversial title, Portnoy's Complaint found that contemporary reception of the novel was quite divided:

The Yale Review’s extensive review by Patricia Meyer Spacks [says that] “the suffering and the comedy of Alexander Portnoy are the suffering and the comedy of modern man, who seeks and finds explanations for his plight but is unable to resolve it, whose understanding is as limited as his sense of possibility, who is forced to the analyst to make sense of his experience.” Interestingly, Time Magazine’s review rejects the most widely identified themes in the novel in favor of a more existential reading: “Although sex, psychoanalysis and Jewishness form the content of the novel, they are not its subject. The book is about absurdity.” Negative reviews also commented on Jewishness, such as Robert Kirsch’s scathing review in The Los Angeles Times in which, in addition to naming the novel “the sickest book of the year or perhaps the decade,” the reviewer argues that Roth “seems as devoid of understanding of Jewish tradition and history as it is possible to be. For Roth is no authentic Jew (to use Sartre’s phrase) and neither is Portnoy.” Other negative reviews were more generally caustic and inflammatory, such as the Virginia Quarterly Review pooh-poohing the novel’s literary merits with [this:] “So corrosive and coprophilic a recital cannot of itself easily qualify as literature.”

Finally, in the critical essay, student researchers are asked to synthesize what they have learned from their weeks of in-depth library research on a single title, and what they have learned about bestsellers in general, in the class, and produce an essay that answers the question "What do we learn about bestsellers from this book?" Here's the opening paragraph from Scott Filkins' essay on what qualifies easily as the most thoroughly forgotten bestseller of the spring semester, Katharine Brush's smash hit of 1930, Young Man of Manhattan:

In his 1931 Scribner’s Magazine essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, after admitting that not enough time had lapsed to make clear sense of the decade that had just passed, offered this observation on the 1920s: “The Jazz Age had had a wild youth and a heady middle age. …. In the second phase such phenomena as sex and murder became more mature, if much more conventional. Middle age must be served and pajamas came to the beach to save fat thighs and flabby calves from competition with the one-piece bathing suit. Finally skirts came down and everything was concealed” (182). As a novel of the Roaring ‘20s that was published on the verge of the Great Depression, Katharine Brush’s Young Man of Manhattan, escapist fare in the form of a romance framed by a bustling portrait of New York, provides an almost nostalgic reflection on the recently-departed era, if not precisely the “grown-up,” conventional version of the '20s on which Fitzgerald commented. In reviews, the novel is frequently praised for its realism, but just as important is the novel’s palatably packaged “Lost Generation-lite” love story that assiduously documents the era of excess before the economic downturn.

I've kept you long enough, and perhaps taken you too far afield from the library into the classroom, but I think it is the essence of a liberal arts education that the library should be an important classroom in itself, and in the rather peculiar class that I have been describing, it certainly is. I'll end by pointing out just a couple of interesting side-effects of this course-design, things that may not be immediately or intuitively obvious, but that are indicators of successful integration of library research and liberal arts education, in my view. First of all, this course is plagiarism-proof, or very nearly so. Each student is doing original research on a new topic, and frat-house term-paper files hold no answers for these assignments. Second, the assignments progress from gathering factual information--which cannot be plagiarized--to paraphrasing sources in order to construct a coherent summary of biography or reception, to mounting an informed argument of one's own. One of the great problems with undergraduate writing, in my opinion, is that it is underinformed: we routinely ask students to write on subjects they know little about. Asking them to write on subjects they know well produces better results. And last but not least, these students know that their work is publicly accessible, that their entry will be the entry in this database on their chosen title, and that their work will have readers beyond the professor who grades it. I make it a point, in fact, to send along to the class the queries and comments that I receive, at the rate of about one a week, on previous entries in the database, in emails such as this one, concerning The Egyptian by Mika Waltari (published in English in 1949 and quite possibly the only Finnish-American bestseller of the 20th century):

I am an English lecturer and post-graduate student at Vaasa University in Finland. I am doing research on the translation and publishing process of Mika Waltari's historical novels into English. I found that a student of yours, Anna Roberts, has written a paper on Mika Waltari's novel The Egyptian in your course 20th-Century American Bestsellers. I read her paper with much interest, and I am now asking you, if you could give me her email address. I would like to contact her to ask for more information. I hope this does not cause much inconvenience.

Best regards,
Tuija Luokkakallio
Department of English
University of Vaasa

Unfortunately, I am no longer in touch with Anna Roberts, but I was able to put this researcher in touch with another Finn, Malena Torvalds-Westerlund, who had contacted me a few months earlier with extensive information about the translation of this novel. Among other things, Malena's email specifically addressed something my student had noted in her entry, namely the mysterious difference of 276 pages between the length of the Finnish original and the length of the English translation:

The English editions of the book are a translation from Swedish. The Swedish translation was made by Ole Torvalds and printed in 1946 by the publisher “Holger Schildts foerlag” in Helsinki.

The Swedish translation is 614 pages, with shortenings authorized by Waltari. (this is mentioned at least in the first Swedish edition published in 1946).

The English editions are thus not 276 but “only” about 100 pages shorter than the Swedish translation.

The shortenings in the Swedish text were made by the translator in cooperation with the author, on the publisher’s request.

With best regards,
Malena Torvalds-Westerlund

The point I'd like to end on (or possibly, Finnish with...) is this: students--even undergraduates--can do original research the result of which can have two distinct forms of value: it can teach the student about the importance of the library to a liberal arts education and equip that student for a lifetime of learning, and it can produce something that, because it is original library research, has a value far beyond the class for which it is produced, and may enter into the kind of dialogue that we call research, among individuals who share a passion for the same subject. That's the dialogue into which we hope to introduce our students, and there's no better place for that introduction to begin than in the library.