The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, July 18, 2005

the end of the UGL

There's been a lot of lamenting recently about how the University of Texas at Austin is removing the books from its Undergraduate Library to make space for computer terminals, a coffee bar, etc. That such a great library system would bow to the shallow, immediate-gratification demands of its 'consumers' has been seen as something ranging from a crime to a tragedy to a sad reminder of the nefarious times we live in.

I'd like to respectfully disagree while acknowledging the real problems underlying this controversy. The UGL, as it is known on campus, long ago ceased to be useful for undergraduates as a resource. UT's enormous Perry-Castaneda Library, housed in a building shaped vaguely like the state of Texas, is the library of first recourse for the undergraduates there and has been for some time. The UGL's collection survived as a relic of those days when serious academic works deemed fit only for graduate-student and faculty consumption were kept far away from undergraduates. (Leavey Library at USC and Lamont at Harvard are similar, though much better, undergraduate libraries.) The UGL shelves held multiple copies of canonical texts used in the undergraduate classes (dozens of shabby Odysseys and beat-up Coming of Age in Samoas) and some "popular reading." Its small size was meant to encourage browsing, but the collection was housed in two unappealing floors of an unattractive—UGLy—building. Students stayed away, naturally choosing the much better PCL.

I'm sure that the feeling underlying these complaints is academics' general discomfort with how undergraduates, and to an alarming degree graduate students as well, not only don't know how to get information from libraries and books but flatly don't understand how that information differs, in value and credibility, from Google searches. Believe me, this is something I fight against daily. But we have to counter it not by being Luddites—"get thee to the stacks, ephebe!"—but by providing students with the skills to critically evaluate information on the web and use it appropriately, with purpose and audience in mind.

Part of the hostility to UT's plans, moreover, stems from a resistance to the greater willingness of university adminstrations to accept, or even cultivate, students' consumeristic attitude to their educations and to jump in bed with corporations, and I share that resistance. I'm certain that UT will invite in just such a national brand to run the coffee concession, as it did when it allowed national chains to open outlets in the Texas Union. I don't love that any more than I love that they show Pepsi commercials on the Jumbotron during Longhorn football games.

What bugs me is that administrators aren't ashamed of throwing their lots in with corporations; anzi, they gloat about it. I know my POV is quickly becoming outdated, but I see the mission of the university as exactly the opposite of the mission of consumer capitalism: one is meant to foster critical thinking and teach students how to apply it to daily life in a complicated society, while the other is to undermine it and hamper people from using it. I had a disturbing conversation with the director of admissions here recently about how happy he was that a national coffee chain opened up a branch on campus: "students love the brands they're familiar with," he crowed. In fact, I was at the official opening of that store and heard the speakers praise "the union of three great brands" (the food-service contractor, the university, and the coffee chain) just before a priest/administrator blessed the store.


  • At 6:27 PM, Blogger zp said…

    thanks for filling me in on all the details of this. i was shocked too when i heard, but it IS always more complicated than it seems . . .


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