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'Not Just a Room That Holds Books': Inside the Fight to Save UC Berkeley's Anthropology Library

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A man sits behind a library circulation desk. In front of him is a large sign board protesting the library's closure.
UC Berkeley Anthropology graduate student Rabindra Hayashi sits behind the circulation desk of the George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library on April 30, 2023, more than a week into an occupation of the library by student and faculty protesters seeking to block the university from closing it. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

Jesús Gutiérrez can often be found perusing a shelf full of myths.

Tucked among the second-floor stacks of the UC Berkeley Anthropology Library, the collection features stories curated by cultural origin. “For instance, classical European folktales, moving into folktales from Jewish and Black diasporas around the world. And interestingly, some books that contain cross-sections of these different kinds of traditions,” he said.

Ever since the university stopped staffing the library more than a year ago, the 29-year-old anthropology Ph.D. candidate has served as its de facto librarian.

“This library would essentially have been closed and just left to languish if the [anthropology] department had not stepped in and offered to hire me as someone to just basically keep the collection open and accessible,” he said.

Gutiérrez is leading a small but passionate group of students, faculty and community members who have occupied the George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library since April 21, pledging — in true Berkeley protest tradition — to live among its stacks until the administration halts its plan to close the facility.

“We are fighting for public resources for all,” said Gutiérrez, as he toured the library on a recent afternoon, passing a handful of students reading quietly at tables on the main floor. Only the cloth protest banners hanging from shelves and folded cots pushed into corners suggested any kind of situation out of the ordinary.

Gutiérrez said his group has already met with Chancellor Carol Christ and other campus administrators, and “tried every single bureaucratic channel,” to no avail.

A young man with bushy hair poses among the stacks of a library.
Jesús Gutiérrez, a UC Berkeley anthropology graduate student, standing among the stacks of the anthropology library, which he and other activists have occupied since April 21, in an effort to thwart the university’s plans to close it by January 2024. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

Facing a projected $75 million budget shortfall, the university in February announced plans to close the library along with two other small specialty libraries — for math statistics and for physics and astronomy — and merge them over the course of the next two years with larger campus libraries as part of its “long-term space plan.”

The anthropology library is slated to shutter first, by January 2024, with its “low-use materials” moved to a Richmond warehouse and “a significant portion” of its remaining collections transferred to the stacks of the main campus library, according to a description of the plan on the school’s website.

In touting its plan, the university suggests that its online library search tool is more effective than physically looking for materials in person.

Gutiérrez fundamentally disagrees, arguing that the experience of being here in person is deeply valuable and irreplaceable.

“There is a serious lack of understanding by some folks in the administration who seem to believe that the future is so digital that there’s no real place for books in a tight and difficult public education budget in California,” he said. “We believe differently.”

A library “is not just a room that holds books,” Gutiérrez added. “We believe that what we’re fighting for here is the collection itself, the actual stories that these shelves tell and the actual communities that they represent, many of whom are communities that use this library on the regular.”

In an email, UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore said administrators are still considering a proposal to continue using the library as a reading room and meeting space for the anthropology department and for members of Native communities.

“Regarding the Anthropology library’s closure, we, too, wish the library could remain open, but that is not an option at this point,” she said, citing the university’s “series of financial challenges in recent years, including the budgetary impacts of the pandemic.”

Cloth protest banners hanging from low shelves in the library, that say, 'Defend Public Education' and 'Save the Anthropology Library.'
Protest banners line the bookshelves on the main floor of the UC Berkeley anthropology library, on April 30, 2023. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

“Overall, the university continues to experience cost pressures due to historically high inflation, mandated increases in academic and staff wages, and increased expenses associated with aging campus infrastructure,” she said.

Gilmore noted that funding for campus library services has nose-dived in recent years, dropping by more than 30% since 2003 (when adjusted for inflation). Last year, she said, there were just 64 full-time librarians on campus, down from nearly 80 on staff two decades ago — even as campus enrollment has grown by more 12,000.

Gutiérrez called that steady disinvestment “a symptom of inverted priorities.”

“We would like to see UC Berkeley prioritize educational resources that benefit the public and underrepresented minorities on this campus, such as this collection, such as the other libraries that are closing,” he said. “The conversation is fundamentally about the devaluing of knowledge and the devaluing of the people who make this university work, which are, for the most part, the actual researchers who teach the classes, the actual undergraduates who fight and advocate for themselves on issues of disability, of race and gender equity.”

He added, “We want to use those resources to educate ourselves about the history of violence, subjugation, but also triumph, of the world’s peoples.”

The UC Berkeley Anthropology Library is one of just three of its kind in the nation, with the other two housed on the campuses of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. As of Sunday, nearly 3,000 people had signed the petition to keep the library open.

“There is a larger number of people who have been here in the last day, giving more energy to the place and more optimism,” said UC Berkeley Anthropology Department Chair Charles Hirschkind.

A banner hung from the side of a three-story building says, 'Save the anthro library.'
Outside UC Berkeley’s anthropology library on April 30, 2023. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

The library is an important resource for Indigenous people seeking to rediscover and revitalize some of their own traditions, he added, noting that many students — particularly students of color — have said the library is “important for their own identities.”

“This decision [to close the library] has been opposed by every unit on campus. Every faculty association voted against it,” Hirschkind said. “Despite all of that support for keeping it open, the university has been unwavering in its decision.”

Well into the second week of the occupation, Gutiérrez said the group of as many as 30 core activists has fallen into a steady routine, with the handful who have spent the night eating breakfast together at 7:30 a.m. before heading out to their classes or to “you know, shower.” The protesters return in the evening, he said, to participate in teach-ins and “make decisions about how we want to make use of our time here.”

“If you walked into the library [at that time], you’d see tons of sleeping bags all over the place, students studying, clubs meeting, teacher assistants from other departments doing office hours, air mattresses and a couple of tents,” Gutiérrez said. “It’s been a space of tremendous amounts of solidarity from professors, student organizations, community groups of all kinds to come here and really demonstrate that we stand for a different set of priorities than those of the current UC Berkeley administration.”

This story includes reporting from KQED’s Erin Baldassari, and Kiley Russell of Bay City News.

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