What would Thomas Jefferson think? According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, renovations of the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia could significantly decrease the amount of shelf space available for books, and many faculty are unhappy at the prospect. To an English professor of a certain age, the musty fragrance of an 1861 edition of Silas Marner discovered in the stacks can be more potent than a bongful of premium-grade Venice Beach recreational marijuana.
But let’s be fair. What options do shelf-starved university libraries have in these challenging times?
Perhaps the most creative approach has been taken at the University of Arizona. When its Main Library ran out of space for new books in 2012, the school entered into a collaboration with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and Classics Illustrated comics to produce shortened versions of every volume in the library. That’s right…..every volume.
According to Library Director Lazlo Kefler, “Over the past six years we have reduced the space needed for our holdings by nearly 60%. For example, a typical paperback copy of The Brothers Karamazov is well over 700 pages. Our version is 86 pages. How did we do it? We started by cutting the length of those ridiculously long Russian names. ‘Fyodorovich’ became ‘Jones’ and ‘Alexandrovna’ became ‘Pam’. Nothing of substance was lost. No harm, no foul. And then we removed lots of unnecessary prepositions, such as ‘in’, ‘for’, and ‘to’. Once again, no harm done. Finally, we got rid of two characters, Ivan and Dmitri, and all of the plot lines involving them. That was a bit trickier to pull off, but we were able to do it without compromising the flow of the narrative.”
Kefler admits that some books are easier to condense than others. “Technical monographs with lots of mathematical formulas are a real pain. You don’t want to leave out an important step that gets you from A to B in a calculus proof. Our solution is to present everything in a continuous flow on the page with no spaces between the symbols, no punctuation, no new lines or indentations for next steps, and no +/-/÷/×/= signs. This saves tons of room. Of course, it also makes the formulas a bit more difficult to understand, but let’s be honest, these volumes have never been a picnic to read. Math and science are hard!”
On a more positive note, Kefler maintains that certain books actually become more comprehensible when you shorten them. “Consider postmodernist literature. We distilled the collected works of Michel Foucault into a pamphlet that — in its entirety — consists of the following two sentences:
Everything you think you know is made up by powerful interests that are out to screw you. And they’re winning.
“Or take James Joyce’s Ulysses, another big fat novel. We replaced it with a single photograph of a Dublin street from 1904, which is when Leopold Bloom’s story takes place. The photo gets the job done, and students love the revised version!”
Looks like a win-win to us. Well done, Mr. Kefler.