Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Library Buildings -- UCDavis Sleep-In

This past weekend February 5-7, the Peter J. Shields Library was the site of a "sleep-in" to protest the rise of student fees and budget cuts throughout the UC system. Students remained in the library throughout the weekend, holding talks on the progress of the budget, hanging posters, operating coffee stands, and, of course, studying.

The event represents another turn in a string of creative protests at UCDavis. In the fall quarter, Davis students staged a rally on the central quad clad in their underwear to protest fee hikes. At a later date, demonstrators occupied Mrak Hall, the site of the Registrar's office and refused to leave. Some were forcibly removed and there were arrests on-site. When I told my Dad about the library sleep-in, his response was "Why a library?" I said that this is in the tradition of activism from the 1960s where our very own UC Berkeley helped to make history with occupations of university buildings. "I know all that," he said. "But those were symbols of power. Usually people take over administrative buildings. What do they plan to do with a library?"

Why indeed? It appears that what transpired did not quite follow anyone's original vision but was more of an evolution. Earlier in the week, the library and the Chancellor's office received notice that the library would be occupied by students over the weekend. Since, as we know, the library closes for part of that time, in the case of the Shields Library at 6pm on Friday to reopen at noon on Saturday, this announcement was distinctly challenging with the threat of conflict. Linda Katehi, newly appointed Chancellor of UCDavis responded with an announcement that the university recognizes the difficulties upon students imposed by the budget crisis and hopes to assist them by holding extra library hours. So, indeed the library remained open all weekend. Library AULs and acting co-ULs staffed the circulation desk through both Friday and Saturday night. The scene that unfolded was a benign one. Friday evening began with a series of talks on the budget crisis during which the only disruption was when a union speaker was asked to cut his remarks short to make room for student speakers. There were workshops on self-defense and various crafts, coffee stations provided and run by the students, and motivational posters hung up throughout the building. In addition to quoting the likes of Oscar Wilde and Dr. Seuss on various metaphysical truths were several thanking "our wonderful librarians and staff." Mostly students did indeed study and occupied their usual niches throughout the building.

In answer to "why a library building?" this episode, I think has, potentially, much to say about the physical space of the library building in the context of change in education. Players which have sometimes been potentially at odds--the administration, the library, and the users--through political strategy, flexibility, and a spirit of cooperation managed to turn an event that could have been ugly and full of conflict (police dragging people out of a library would be much more inflammatory than dragging people out of the registrar's building as has been replayed on UCDavis TV monitors for weeks) into one that was not only benign but productive. Lo and behold, the mythical library coffee shop, which is often discussed but seldom realized, materialized on its own along with other activities and an "information commons." Perhaps this merging and temperate harmonizing of elements is what the library can offer to campuses in a period of change.

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