By Bernie Schmitt
I felt as if I were witnessing a monumental shift, a hurricane-force wind gust of change.
It was a keen, in-the-moment-realization that the transformations which alter what we have known and have grown accustomed to can be uncomfortable and downright upsetting. Reason allows us to understand change, but our hearts are reluctant to let go.
This fall, in the unnatural heat of October, I was one of several professors, students and others, who perused the stacks of books, encyclopedias and other reference materials that were being given away, or otherwise disposed of from the university library, in advance of a major renovation project.
The Curtis G. Shake Learning Resource Center, otherwise known as the VU library, is one of the largest and best community college libraries for schools our size. It is taking a giant leap into the 21st Century to become a hub of modern learning, with a centralized tutoring area, more conducive work spaces and advanced electronic access to digitized materials.
Students and faculty still will be able to get books from the library, though its physical collection will be reduced. At least that’s my understanding. The big thing, though, is that space at the Shake LRC will be used to enhance student learning. As technology advances, VU, as an educational institution, must prepare itself for students in the 2020s and 2030s.
I don’t want to give the impression that the library is throwing out all of its books; it is merely trimming its collection, as libraries often do, to allow for more space. I’m not sure, though, if the space needed will be used for more books. That’s what old bibliophiles like me are worried about in this so-called digital age.
Granted, some ancient, out-of-date volumes are no longer useful. Non-fiction materials that haven’t been checked out in 10 years were on the chopping block, and reference works must constantly be updated. Old information won’t help a technology student write a good paper in 2019 or 2020 without access to the latest resources.
Classic literature and other important works are not being thrown away. There will still be plenty of books for our students to use. On the other hand, witnessing what seemed to be a purge of the library’s holdings (old as they might be), seemed like sacrilege.
Please understand that not only am I “old-school,” but I’m a book-lover. I like the internet and all that it offers; I like my Kindle, too. But nothing can replace the physical book, an analog repository of information, dependent on one’s experience and imagination to see the story and understand the nuances of literature, philosophy, religion or science.
My mother had books and magazines around the house while I was growing up. I had my own books, too. When we moved to a slightly larger town, one that had a library, it was the first place we visited. I got a public library card when I was 11 or 12, and borrowed countless books that I read from cover to cover.
My love of books (and my penchant for never throwing anything away) has allowed me to collect a handsome home library, a beneficial resource for any writer. It has had educational benefits for my children and grandchildren, too. I have books on journalism, of course, but there are also books on music, philosophy, photography, geography, poetry, Indiana, science, and my favorite, history.
There are biographies and short story collections, and several novels. I own — and have read — nearly every one of John Irving’s novels. There are reference books, too, even a photographic collection from the Bettmann Archive. I have an illustrated Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an autographed copy of James Tobin’s biography of Ernie Pyle, and an original copy of Maurice Thompson’s Alice of Old Vincennes.
I enjoy these material possessions because the words and pictures in them have taught me so much. Books can transport us to another time and place, even another world. We can find in them a richness of language that allows our imaginations to soar with appreciations of wonder. They let us feed our brains and soothe our souls. “Books,” author Stephen King says in his tome On Writing, “are a uniquely portable magic.”
And so it was then, that this strange, keen awareness of change brought forth a mix of emotional nostalgia and sense of loss that day in the university library. I was witnessing, I think, an epic shift in time, one era ending, and another taking its place. That one tiny moment was dramatic, unsettling and real.
Mary Shelley wrote in Frankenstein, “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
To which Kurt Vonnegut Jr. might say, “And so it goes . . .”