DENVER — A protest by students at the University of Denver is eye-opening because of how it is being conducted, what it has so far achieved and, most of all, what it concerns.
Students here are demanding more books.
Activism at DU has a rich history, including the anti-war protest in 1970 known as Woodstock West, and the earlier Coffee Break Riot of 1965.
In the '65 incident, passion was roused after the administration ended the morning coffee break, a 50-minute period during which no classes were conducted. Students blocked traffic, lit fires and battled with police, but failed to win back their caffeine privileges.
It was an era when everything was a Big Deal, and the mood on many campuses was volatile.
Returning to my alma mater last week, I was fascinated by the latest protest. It seems DU's campus library was badly in need of repairs and modernization. When plans for a $32-million renovation were announced, they revealed that most of the books, about 800,000 volumes, would disappear. These books would be stored at an off-campus location, and be accessible via special order only.
DU, like many universities, was seeking to adapt to changing needs and conditions. The new facility would house more computers, a million e-books and other digital resources.
Space that had been used to shelve books would be used for new study areas — reflecting another trend on campuses in which students seek to escape the hubbub of dormitories and increasingly prefer the gentle buzz of a busy, but orderly study environment.
Rather than just calling it a "library," DU refers to its new structure as an "academic commons."
To the administration's surprise, students immediately challenged the plan and, relying upon mainly the tools of social networking, launched a protest. Their leader, Brandon Reich-Sweet, said the plan "jeopardized the academic vitality of this institution." More fundamentally, he asked: "What is a library?"
It was here in Denver two years ago that Suzanne Thorin, dean of libraries at Syracuse University, told a gathering of educators, "The library, as a place, is dead. Kaput. Finito. And we need to move on to a new concept of what the academic library is."
DU students clearly disagree. "What surprised us about the protest," I learned from Ann McCall, the dean of Arts & Humanities, "is that it wasn't the older graduate students who were most concerned, it was the younger students, the freshman and sophomores. They wanted more books in the library."
Following a series of Save the Library demonstrations last spring, one student wrote about it in the campus newspaper, The Clarion, under the headline, "Has DU forgotten about books?" "There is something about being surrounded by books," said Kathy Owens. "Friends, adventures and information at the tip of your fingers, far more tangible than an article a few clicks away on your computer."
This was refreshing stuff to hear from a college student, especially for those of us who are still in shock over the equivalent changes in our off-campus world where Borders Books along with hundreds of smaller independent book retailers have disappeared and left us with primarily electronic and online alternatives.
And it's not as if the students are out of step with digital changes. Last week's Clarion carried an opinion column criticizing professors who ban laptops in class.
Reich-Sweet, the student activist, noted that losing the library books was "just a small symbol of a broader cultural trend. The scribbles and sounds we interpret as 'library' would have begun to lose all meaning."
At last report, DU's administration has yielded, at least part way, and will return an additional 300,000 books to the spiffy new library shelves.
As an observer, it's hard to decide what means more: the restoration of books to the very place they belong? Or the fact that students took such an honorable approach, using the tech tools of a modern age, to protect and preserve the past?
It's quite a victory. And Denver alums who recall the protests of the mid-sixties will be pleased to know that when the new library opens in December 2012, it will not only have books — it will also serve coffee.
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker, and also the long-time host of “Candid Camera.” He can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.