BERKELEY -- In the digital age, do we need librarians? A late-February skirmish on the UC Berkeley campus provides a resounding, affirmative reply.
When word spread like cyber grass fire through social media that the Children's and Young Adult Literature Library in Tolman Hall was at risk of closing, facilitators of a "Read, Write and Publish Children's Literature" course offered through DeCal, the student-run democratic education program, sprang into action.
Within a few days, more than 150 people had signed the online protest petition, according to Elise Levin-Guracar, an interdisciplinary studies major and course facilitator. Vehement book-lovers contacted the media and a huge spike followed, easily topping the goal of 200 signees.
Rallying to save Winnie the Pooh and Harry Potter from being tossed, furor about paper books -- this, from a generation largely reveling in today's digital dominion -- was both fantastic and uninformed.
Unnoticed by Levin-Guracar and her literature-loving peers, the children's collection's demise had more to do with demolition than disposal. Tolman Hall, where the collection is housed, was designated seismically "poor" by a 1997 study and decommissioned by the UC administration.
Slated for replacement some time after May 2015, the new building will follow a campuswide footprint reduction for the university's libraries. Aimed at consolidating staff and implementing a Universal Paging (UP) system, fewer physical book stacks will mean more space can be allocated to seminar, meeting, and group study spaces.
"I have a 130,000-print collection to find homes for," said Susan Edwards, head of the Education Psychology and Social Welfare Libraries. "The petitioners didn't understand this change has been precipitated by the building coming down. They thought it was just the children's collection."
Unfortunately, the students "lost" themselves in what was both too much and a lack of information.
The Internet allowed them to "spread the word" rapidly, but information overload may have caused them to miss a "call for public comment" sent out by university librarians that ended on Feb. 28. The university explained the plans and rationale behind the upcoming changes, and input from staff, faculty and students was encouraged.
"We weren't aware," Levin-Guracar admitted. "But even it they have plans for the books, there's a synergy that will be lost: being with other people who are into the same thing. And having (the collection) as a stand-alone was respectful: It was significant on its own."
Levin-Guracar said she remains unsurprised by fellow students' continued, passionate response. With more than 80 applications for the 40-student class, she said people have told her they've been waiting for a kid lit class for years.
"It's like an excuse to write and read children's literature," she said. "Browsing in a children's library, you can get immersed in a different world in 10 minutes. You can lose yourself in a story."
While the children's collection constitutes about 9,000 books, Edwards said that last year, only 893 circulations were recorded. Even so, the low numbers won't mean the 106 early readers donated by Professor Jack Graves in 2004 or Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" will not receive careful placement.
"We'll apply the same criteria we're using for all books: What is the research value? Are they seminal works that influence generations? Do they document a California experience?" Edwards said.
By establishing the UP system to provide online reservations for books that the can be picked up at a chosen campus location, Edwards said, Cal will allot more spaces for the in-library instruction she said has been "thrilling" students.
The children's collection will be divided and sent to Gardner Hall, the Bancroft Library, the East Asian Library and other specific collections. Low-use materials will be stored in an off-site facility that has daily campus deliveries. Books not fitting the retention criteria will fill gaps in other academic institution's collections.
"We will always have children's books; they're part of literary history," Edwards said. "Children's books are powerful; they're evocative of our first experiences with literature."
Edwards said she hopes reducing the library's footprint will facilitate more meaningful interactions between librarians and students.
"That's the best part of being a librarian; helping them find research information," she said. And then, completing her thought (and inadvertently making the best argument for why the digital generation needs librarians), she added, "Just because they are good with current media doesn't mean they don't need help."