Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tony Judt on American universities and their libraries

Tony Judt writes in the NYRB about the U.S., and about American universities:

..By far the best thing about America is its universities. Not Harvard, Yale, e tutti quanti: though marvelous, they are not distinctively American—their roots reach across the ocean to Oxford, Heidelberg, and beyond. Nowhere else in the world, however, can boast such public universities. You drive for miles across a godforsaken midwestern scrubscape, pockmarked by billboards, Motel 6s, and a military parade of food chains, when—like some pedagogical mirage dreamed up by nineteenth-century English gentlemen—there appears…a library! And not just any library: at Bloomington, the University of Indiana boasts a 7.8-million-volume collection in more than nine hundred languages, housed in a magnificent double-towered mausoleum of Indiana limestone.
A little over a hundred miles northwest across another empty cornscape there hoves into view the oasis of Champaign-Urbana: an unprepossessing college town housing a library of over ten million volumes. Even the smallest of these land grant universities—the University of Vermont at Burlington, or Wyoming’s isolated campus at Laramie—can boast collections, resources, facilities, and ambitions that most ancient European establishments can only envy.1
The contrast between the university libraries of Indiana or Illinois and the undulating fields almost visible from their windows illustrates the astonishing scale and variety of the American inland empire: something you cannot hope to grasp from afar...

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