Most people who know me at all well, know I’m fond of a good coffee shop. It’s an ironic fondness, because I’m neither a coffee snob nor outgoing enough to take advantage of the close proximity of ordinary people. Usually I just hunker down behind a book or my laptop, but my misanthropy does on occasion demand new material.
It’s been exciting for me that my small town recently got a decent coffee shop. I say “decent” not because it’s clientele isn’t useful for my idiosyncratic purposes (oh boy, is it!), but because it’s hours aren’t yet conducive for my evening schedule. If I want to get out of the house then, Panera remains the place of choice. Seems like the hippest small-towners (or, moreso than my own lame self) congregate there at night. Maybe for the free refills and free wireless, or maybe because it’s next door to B&N. You big-city, snooty academic-types may raise an eyebrow or a sneer over this mention of big box outlets–I know I would have, in a previous big city life, when I couldn’t stand to be within a hundred yards of either one. But the tenure-track odyssey does stranger things to a man than cause his beard to grow long and shaggy. These days, now that I’m done with withdrawals (e.g., from having a number of independent bookstores to choose from), I’m more appreciative of the presence of hipsters and books, of whatever stripe. For misanthropy’s sake.
Speaking of coffee, I’m teaching Pope’s The Rape of the Lock today, which contains probably the hippest lines ever written on “the smoking tide”:
For lo! the Board with Cups and Spoons is crown’d,
The Berries crackle, and the Mill turns round.
On shining Altars of Japan they raise
The silver Lamp; the fiery Spirits blaze.
From silver Spouts the grateful Liquors glide,
And China’s Earth receives the smoking Tyde.
At once they gratify their Scent and Taste,
While frequent Cups prolong the rich Repast.
Strait hover round the Fair her Airy Band;
Some, as she sip’d, the fuming Liquor fann’d,
Some o’er her Lap their careful Plumes display’d,
Trembling, and conscious of the rich Brocade.
Coffee, (which makes the Politician wise,
And see thro’ all things with his half shut Eyes)
Sent up in Vapours to the Baron’s Brain
New Stratagems, the radiant Lock to gain.
Even in a small town, there’s no lack of places to go sit down, drink coffee, and use a laptop. Maybe that’s why I’m always so sad every time I hear that an academic library is thinking of going “gigantic computer lab with a coffee shop.” Campuses already dedicate a lot of space and money to computer labs. The library is the only place with these crazy low-tech things called books and archives. I realize that libraries need computers, but it’s really just a question of space–inside the building and inside the budget–that has to be balanced against the specific mission of the library itself. If you devote all that space to study rooms and computer infrastructure, you run into a lot of problems.
But once we resign ourselves to the inevitable–and academic librarians, sadly, seem as possessed by techno-lust as everyone else is, says the man typing away on his laptop–there will have to be some significant losses. As the link above suggests, once the space inside the library is at a premium, the books will have to go off-site. There’s just not much else that can be done. Because the losses will be deferred, not noticeable till later, it’s not likely that anyone will notice. Observation takes training. Out of sight, out of mind is proverbial for a reason. So how will futuroids know what they’re missing? Or, to put the question differently, how much does it cost in lost opportunity to be denied the serendipity of finding something you didn’t know you were looking for, otherwise known as shelf-browsing to the low-tech still among us? How much is that worth? (I ask sincerely, not just rhetorically–for all I know, there’s a clever economist out there who’s got some figures on it.)
It’s worth considering a current example. I don’t have access to circulation figures, but I’d be willing to bet that since President Obama mentioned that his favorite theologian was Reinhold Niebuhr, Niebuhr’s books have been circulating like crazy. Before that, had anyone not in divinity school even heard of Reinhold Neibuhr? But supplying this kind of demand is what academic libraries do. And if Niebuhr’s in storage, in a case like this, all that’s involved is a bit of inconvenience in waiting the extra day or two.
But how did President Obama come across Niebuhr? Surely he wasn’t assigned theology in law school, and since he didn’t major in contemporary theology as an undergraduate, we’ve got to assume that he came upon Niebuhr the old fashioned way: serendipity. Maybe even shelf-browsing. That’s how I find a lot of the things I work on. It’s just luck. Luck, that is, that can only happen by being a library rat and hanging out with the actual, physical books a fair bit of the time. It’s simply impractical to pretend that libraries work in any other way.
And, clearly, the President has a bit more on his mind these days than to worry about whether we’ve been hipped to the latest old theology. So there’s got to be a better solution, and it just so happens that I’ve got it.
One of the duties of being rich is to endow stuff for the public good. So what we need to do is turn Starbucks stores into research libraries. When we send books off-campus for storage, we can store them at Starbucks. There’s an initial outlay on shelves and space and such, but it’s not all pure philanthropy. After all, once all the students who now frequent Starbucks are sitting in the new library-cum-computer-lab-coffee-shop, who’s going to overpay for coffee? Bleary-eyed archival researchers who need to copy out by hand another twelve volumes of medieval chronicle before sundown today, that’s who. They’re a market as yet more or less untapped by the big chains. At present, they get most of their coffee from crappy machines installed in the bowels of the earth alongside tomes full of graffiti inscriptions from late antiquity. The archives themselves can only profit by getting an antiseptic dusting and having a little Kenny G perpetually piped in. (Being dryasdust is supposed to be a bit hellish, you know.) And talk about a chance to make the humanities relevant once again! Customers may come for the coffee, but they’ll stay for the seventeenth-century manuscripts and hate mail addressed but never sent from T.S. Eliot to Bertrand Russell. And just picture it: from a purely misanthropic standpoint, staring at dour, dilapidated researchers all day long is gold. Or cash money.
From my standpoint, as always a rather perplexed one, it seems clear that this is a solution for the best of all possible worlds.