The celebrated postmodern architect Robert Venturi added an extension to Bard College’s Stevenson Library in 1993. His polychrome brick building—with a masking façade of yellow, orange, purple and olive panels—was intended to blend with the original library: an 1893 Greek-revival re-creation of the Parthenon.
There’s less effort today to blend old and new on the campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Bard recently announced that three undergraduates, funded by the Office of Inclusive Excellence, are working their way through Stevenson Library, “evaluating each book for representations of race/ethnicity, gender, religion, and ability.”
It’s unlikely that the students will actually read every book in Bard’s 400,000-volume collection during the year scheduled for the project. The “representations” of each book they arrive at are certain to be limited to what can be easily determined about the authors’ heritage, sex, faith and physical disabilities.
That, at least, has been the pattern of other such library audits. In 2018 Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles undertook a similar project, concluding that the school’s William H. Hannon Library had an insufficient number of works in “the categories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender LGBTQ+, Women’s Studies, and Disability.” In 2020 the University of California Irvine audited nearly a decade of orders, by the school’s Langson Library and other collections on campus, for new scripts of plays. The audit concluded that the school needed its purchases to shift “to reflect the increased demand for diverse playwrights.”
The point of the audit at Bard originally appeared to be picking books to remove. The announcement in Notes, the library’s newsletter, described the project as a first step in “the process of decanonizing the stacks”—academic jargon for breaking the connection to the past. A follow-up from the staff seemed to suggest that the eventual aim is a major deaccessioning (to use a librarians’ term: litotes for getting rid of books).
A representative of the library, however, later said in an email that was forwarded to me that the project was designed “to increase our understanding of our collection, not to remove books.”
This leaves unspecified the reason the information is being gathered in the first place, but the librarian waved away the students funded by the Office of Inclusive Excellence, stating that actual librarians will decide about the library’s collections, not student workers.
And perhaps this audit is merely a sop to activist students and diversity administrators. But it does seem at least a surrender to the idea that content is determined by the extraliterary characteristics of the author. And if the audit does include content, the result could be a straightforward Index of Prohibited Books—even if, as seems unlikely, the librarians aren’t pressured eventually to act on the information that the students catalog.
There’s been much agitation in recent years about libraries. In 2019 more than 4,700 children’s books from across Quebec’s schools were purged because they “had outdated content and carried negative stereotypes,” with 30 burned in a public “flame purification” ceremony. In 2021 state
Rep. Matt Krause
demanded that every Texas school admit whether its library contained any book from a list of nearly 850 suspect titles, with the aim of forcing the schools to remove the books. Schools’ assigning of
1987 novel “Beloved” became a contentious topic in the final weeks of Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial race.
No one seems to be asking whether the questioned books are good or not.
Founded in 1860, Bard sits midway between Albany and Poughkeepsie. The school prides itself on being a liberal-arts center, claiming “a reputation for scholarly excellence, a focus on the arts, and civic engagement.” It is, its official description says, “committed to enriching culture, public life, and democratic discourse by training tomorrow’s thought leaders.” It was awarded a library grant last year from the National Endowment for the Arts.
But what are we to make of Bard’s descent into auditing its library? The worry here should be that the past won’t survive the passions of the present, even among librarians and others whose task is to preserve literary achievement and blend it with the present. The philosopher
personal library is stored at Bard College. One wonders what she would think of the new audit of the library’s collections. One wonders what the auditors will make of the woman who observed: “There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous.”
Ms. Bottum is the Journal’s Joseph Rago Memorial Fellow.
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Appeared in the January 20, 2022, print edition.