WASHINGTON — Washington. -- After three decades of teaching, I am surprised by very little in academe. But I must confess that after a great deal of traveling over the past year in some distant parts of the United States, I was truly disappointed to find college and university libraries making it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone other than their own students and faculty to enter.
Mind you, I have no quarrel with visitors in an academic librar having to produce credentials to check out books, but to require visitors to go through an identification process simply to enter library doors and make use of materials in-house goes against my sense of what an academic institution is all about, especially today when reading programs, including Project Literacy, are so enthusiastically endorsed throughout the land.
I must admit I've been spoiled at The American University wher I've taught virtually all my academic life. We have our share of problems and flaws which I've been vocal about in writing and speaking, but our library doors have been open to friend, foe, and the indifferent for as long as I can remember.
Neighbors in our city's Spring Valley section often make use of our resources, and silver-haired readers sitting at desks also occupied by young folk give my academic heart a good flutter or two.
What's the big deal about open access to libraries? Likel thieves of books will be deterred by the fact that every library I visited was an academic version of the old Gong Show, with bells and other sounds to stop any culprit.
From a business point of view, I know there is a cost feature i numerous visitors were typical: desks and chairs would be worn out faster, and maybe some books, but I can't see these adding up to big bucks.
As for the argument that libraries would be unable t accommodate existing students and faculty were visitors admitted readily, I am sympathetic to the theory, but practice suggests otherwise. Over the years I have yet to find libraries crowded as a rule of thumb, except during the last couple weeks of a semester when students are feverishly at work on term papers and preparation for final exams.
Librarians I have talked with suggest that only a small fraction o the resources of a college or university library are ultimately used. Under that tip of the iceberg of utilization is a great bulk of books that will succumb to rotting long before the heavy hand of jTC users destroys them.
Ironically, most colleges and universities provide easy access t classrooms, the student union or athletic fields. But the library, the center of the academic institution, is too often off-limits, suggesting a peculiar system of values that the institution holds: namely, that the areas of intellectual life that are likely to be the showiest are the most accessible.
In a library, there's no show; it's the individual who must trudge alone with little help and no spectators, discovering new vistas of information.
Since I was a youngster, I've enjoyed visiting libraries. Each ha its own intellectual fingerprint, no matter the size of the collection.
In a community library in a small town in central Florida, I recently found a reprint of a classic book on the history of the Sunshine State that had eluded me in searches in larger cities. I hadn't planned to visit the library, but my wife was in the area visiting relatives, and it was a delightful place to spend an afternoon. Nobody asked for any identification, and I was even given some Southern hospitality in getting oriented to the particular layout of books. Looking around, I was pleased to see people from all walks of life doing exactly what I was doing, enjoying the open admissions of a world of books.
Keeping college and university library doors open to all may not appear to be a weighty priority in academe's long list of concerns, but it is a sign of what the institution values. And intellectual democracy should be the core of American higher education's mission.
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at The American University. His most recent book is 'History of the United States," a high school text. Ernest B. Furgurson, whose column usually appears here, has the day off.