Students Occupy UC–Berkeley Anthropology Library to Protest Its Closure

Currently only three American research universities have anthropology libraries: Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, and University of California (UC)–Berkeley. This could change as early as 2025, when Berkeley plans to close its George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library and disperse the library’s collections throughout the rest of the university’s library system.

male student at reference desk at anthropology library, protest signs set up on floor
UC Berkeley Anthropology graduate student Rabindra Hayashi sits behind the circulation desk of George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library on April 30,  more than a week into an occupation of the library
Photo credit: Annelise Finney/KQED

Currently only three American research universities have anthropology libraries: Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, and University of California (UC)–Berkeley. This could change as early as 2025, when Berkeley plans to close its George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library and disperse the library’s collections throughout the rest of the university’s library system.

Many were shocked at Berkeley’s February announcement of the proposed closure. The reason administration gave was financial, as the university overall is facing a potential $82 million budget deficit. But students—and not only anthropology majors—have taken their opposition to the stacks. In April they organized a sit-in at the library, with students, faculty, and community members camping out in the stacks 24/7, to protest the closing.

This is not the first time students have organized to save the library. Alex Parra, a third-year student studying computer science and Chicanx Latinx studies, told Library Journal that a previous attempt to close the anthropology library about 10 years ago met with similar pushback, and students led a successful occupation—one of the reasons Parra joined the current action. “I personally don’t want to see any educational resources close here at the university,” he said. “Back in February, we had a two- or three-night occupation, but then started a much longer occupation. There’s been a lot more support this time around. Different people from different walks of life are coming in, and it’s really a coalition of students who want to see educational resources available.”

Those materials are the students’ focus. “That’s at the crux of this, our educational resources, the books and the collections, and the way the collection is curated,” said Parra. “These are pedagogical tools.”

Professor Emeritus Laura Nader, who taught in the Berkeley anthropology department for 60 years, is incensed. “What kind of university would close such an important library?” she said. “This couldn’t happen at Harvard.”

Nader supports the student occupation. “The students are wonderful,” she said. “This is not political for them, not right/left. And it’s not just anthropology students. Students from departments all over campus are showing up, kids coming to help.” She’s hearing from former students about the potential library closure as well. “I’ve gotten letters from England and Egypt, former students saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’ I don’t know what to tell them.”

As her own form of protest, “I wrote the chancellor,” she said. “I know her personally. I told her to resign or do the right thing. She wrote back that she disagrees.”

LJ asked Elizabeth Dupuis, senior associate university librarian, whether university leadership considered trying to find alumni or donors to shore up the library’s funding—something Parra noted the students have directly asked Chancellor Carol Christ to let them do. “Philanthropic giving is a very welcomed and much-needed source of financial support for the UC Berkeley Library,” she replied. “In fact, in the most recent fiscal year, 28 percent of our budget came from donors’ gifts. The economic realities we face are stark, and are the result of years of diminished funding. Given our budgetary constraints and our need for long-term funding, one-time or time-limited gifts would not be sufficient.” Along with the anthropology library, the physics-astronomy and mathematics statistics libraries are also slated for closure, with their collections merged into other libraries on campus. Dupuis said the three libraries together represent an annual savings of about $1.2 million annually, once closed.

Parra pointed out that it’s not just the idea of closing the library that has inspired the students to protest, but the relocation of its unique contents. “This becomes especially salient when you consider a lot of these collections are for and by Indigenous folk, who often don’t get to see their histories at all in any libraries,” he said. “For me, as a Latino, I see the value in having these collections and having access to them.”

Could closing the anthropology library disenfranchise students of color and socially/economically disadvantaged students, and strain the university’s relationship with underserved communities? “Once the Anthropology Library’s materials are merged with the collections of the Main (Gardner) Stacks,” Dupuis wrote, “students, scholars, and the public will continue to be able to access these important resources—including items that represent and shine light on marginalized and vulnerable communities. Regularly used titles will be transferred to Main Stacks, which is centrally located, has longer hours, receives more daily visitors, and is more physically accessible, including for patrons with mobility limitations.”

That approach creates more problems than it solves, Parra pointed out. “We’re talking about archaeological records, ethnographies that are really old, dating back centuries and centuries,” he said. “Things that belong to the Natives here in California, they won’t get access to if that moves to the main stacks or wherever.” (Members of the public can access main stacks materials on-site through free passes that grant one-day or longer-term access.)

Dupuis noted that the collection will then be cataloged by Library of Congress numbering standards. Parra and his fellow students find that idea problematic. “They said all the things that are relevant to each other will be in the same area,” he said, “so we did an analysis on that. We said, ‘Let’s go through the books and see how they map to the Library of Congress numbers.’ And we found that the collection isn’t going to stay together. Things that are right next to each other in the anthropology library could end up an entire stack apart.” Another disadvantage to the reorganization, he added, is eliminating the “aha” discovery that occurs when a student is looking for a specific book or item and discovers unexpected works immediately adjacent.

For the foreseeable future, Parra doesn’t see any letup in the occupation and notes the organizers are committed to keeping it going as long as they need to.

“These kids give me so much hope,” said Nader. “They just think it’s wrong to close the library, and they’re standing up”—or, in this case, sitting in.

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