Letters to the Editor

Amending the “Bill of Rights for Library Services”

Robert H. Keller, May 1992

The article by Morris, Kazmierczak, and Schoen, "A Faculty Bill of Rights for Library Services" (Perspectives, March 1992), had much to say about the performance of librarians and what university libraries owe to faculty. Somehow the authors neglected to discuss an equally important matter: responsible faculty conduct in return.

If we assume that university libraries exist not just to serve the faculty, but students and the general public as well, then the book loan policies of most campus libraries, and faculty abuse of those privileges, can be a major problem on the many campuses where professors enjoy almost unlimited borrowing power.

If schools allow faculty to borrow books for a year, or for the remainder of any given academic year, that is bad enough. But when books are not returned even after that length of time, timid librarians seldom do anything except automatically renew the books. The idea of faculty paying fines for overdue books seems to be some kind of blasphemy against the profession, maybe even a violation of "academic freedom." I have taught where professors have held books for over seven years; one teacher had 435 overdue books checked out. Another had to die before the library retrieved its hundreds of books and journals. Some individuals come to consider these books part of their own personal library and react very rudely and uncooperatively when librarians ask for returns. At times I've waited several months for a text to return from an unknown colleague, with the library terrified at the idea of pressing matters.

When confronted with the inequity of such loan policies, college faculty have many pious answers, all of them self-serving: "I need it for my research ... I am writing a book ... It's a major work in my field ... My time is too valuable to waste in renewing library books ... No one else uses this technical work ... I'm underpaid by the school ... It's in my specialty ... I'm working on a very long-term project."

No one, including college faculty, really needs to borrow any book for more than a few weeks. If they can't read a book in that time, they are clearly in the wrong profession. If they frequently need it for reference and consultation, they should buy a copy. Technical books, research tools, and classics in a field are a professor's "tools," and are tax-deductible as such. One has a hard time imagining a carpenter constantly borrowing a skillsaw, level, hammer, and the local construction code, much less repeatedly borrowing these tools from other carpenters and then not returning them until harassed.

University faculty should be treated like everyone else. Library books are due on time. If late, we pay fines.

I've often heard that unlimited library privileges are a "perk" of the job and that we professors cannot be fined or denied the right to unlimited borrowing because we are practicing our trade. If the library somehow cannot legally fine faculty who abuse the most important facility of any school, there is a more effective way to pull us into line: simply revoke another sacred academic prerogative—that of parking on campus.

I am a historian and a professor, not a librarian.

Robert H. Keller
Visiting Scholar
University of Arizona