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Vermont’s outrageous library plan speaks volumes about our illusions

State college libraries are giving up on physical books — a decision that’s emblematic of how things often work in our society.

Students at Castleton University in Vermont expressed their opposition to a proposal to eliminate library books as a cost-cutting measure.Caleb Kenna for The Boston Globe

When the new president of Vermont State University announced a controversial cost-cutting plan to digitize the libraries of the several former state colleges that make up the system, to eliminate eight of its librarians, and to “donate” (i.e., discard) all but a few volumes of the physical collections, I was among the many outraged people who saw the issue as primarily “about the books.” For the most part, I still do.

I can’t believe that anyone, let alone a person charged with directing an institution of higher learning, would fail to see that a college without a library is like a body without a heart. Or that the deepest kind of scholarship is never entirely self-directed, that it requires the random browsing and serendipitous cross-referencing best done with material texts and in the aisles between opposing shelves.

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To say nothing of the indispensable assistance of knowledgeable librarians both to students at the school and to community members like me who depend on the ample collections of a college library for their business or pleasure. Actual people and physical books are what make a library as real as the world it exists to serve.

Stepping back from the controversy, however — taking my nose out of the book, so to speak — I’ve come to see this affair as a case study in the way things often work in our society. Change “college” to company, change “library” to virtually any other jobsite, and you will see the same dynamics in action. Behind the ostensible dispute that makes it into the letters section of the newspaper are several basic assumptions that beg to be disputed but almost never are.

The first of these is that democracy has no practical application outside of a legislative assembly or an election-year spectacle. We say its name so often and so glibly that we fail to notice how rare a thing democracy actually is. Democracy is the god we never pray to, the mom we never visit, the apple pie we haven’t eaten for years.

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For example: The faculties of the affected Vermont colleges have delivered a stunning vote of “no confidence” in the president, the students are protesting the library decision on the State House lawn, the newspapers are full of indignant letters from citizens of all ages, occupations, and political stripes, but it seems that the will of one individual backed by 15 shadowy trustees has the power to make hundreds of thousands of books disappear.

“How can they be doing this?” people ask, as if the answer weren’t in their own hearts. “They” can be doing this because so many of us continue to harbor the decidedly undemocratic notion that the only effective way to run anything from a factory to a family is through top-down leadership. If somebody isn’t seated at the head of the table, how will any of us manage to pick up a fork? A college where faculty and students, as opposed to administrators and trustees, determined the fate of a library would in this view be un-American, if not downright insane. Self-government is nice in its place, provided the place is as far as possible from where we live and work.

Students from Vermont state colleges joined a protest against the all-digital library plan in Montpelier on Feb. 21.Lisa Rathke/Associated Press

It’s unfortunate but perhaps to be expected at a time when the dematerialization of a college library is a thinkable project that I must distinguish what I mean by democracy from the sort of churlish populism that thinks any idiot is entitled to dictate public health policy or the curricula of his local public school by the volume of his shouting or the magazine capacity of his gun. Call me an elitist, but there are matters in which we need expertise to guide us, and there are arguments in which one person’s opinion counts more than another’s. I don’t want my gall bladder removed according to a series of voice votes taken in the operating theater. I want the most qualified person to be in charge, and I want her holding the knife.

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But is the decision to cut the books from a college library of the same order as a surgical operation? Doesn’t a library card entitle its holder to a voice? The recent announcement of a “refined plan” that would retain 10 percent of the libraries’ current collections only serves to underscore which people have the power and which people are expected to be grateful for whatever token concessions they can get. If all things are to be determined by credentialed expertise and bureaucratic fiat, then we might as well pulp the books since they obviously have nothing to teach us about how to direct the course of our lives.

The second discernible factor in this controversy complements the first. The flip side of our distrust of democracy is our focus on the individual designated to serve as our savior and, should salvation fail or hurt too much, our scapegoat. In the case of Vermont State University, this person is President Parwinder Grewal, who has weathered a maelstrom of vitriol, including mine, with dignity and restraint. We’re all perfectly happy to assume that he’s solely to blame for this reprehensible decision, that the trustees who hired him had no knowledge that he was going to cut costs by gutting the libraries. Presumably it was his mandate, not the Vermont State Legislature’s, that the university reduce its expenses by $5 million a year. Grewal must be the culprit who determined that Vermont’s per-student spending on higher education is one of the lowest in the nation and has been for years. What villainy — yes, and what a villain to have created such conditions before he ever set foot in Vermont!

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Which brings us to the third and perhaps the most instructive factor in the library dispute: the primacy of money. By money I’m talking less about what’s in a university’s budget than what’s in the average alumnus’s brokerage account. I’m talking about the class distinctions that lie beneath any issue you can name, be it who serves in the army, who can always get an abortion, and, now, which college students can lay hands on a book. An initiative like the one threatening the campus library that serves my working- and middle-class community would never be proposed at a private institution where one phone call from a wealthy alumnus would suffice to nip the idea in the bud.

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In other words, it would not be floated at the kind of school where the typical university president or trustee is apt to send his or her kids. Those students get to backpack through Europe for a semester; the sons and daughters of local farm workers and nurses’ aides can scroll through YouTube. An online library is luxury enough for them.

The relatively low priority that Vermont gives to erasing such distinctions reflects a prevailing unwillingness in the nation at large, though Vermonters do a better job than most of pretending otherwise. We enjoy the reputation of being “a progressive state,” a reputation we sometimes deserve, though we can exhibit a most uncanny knack for combining rectitude with parsimony. The mixture is perhaps best exemplified by our preference for Democratic legislators and Republican (or fiscally conservative) governors. We expect the former to propose a raise in the minimum wage, and we expect the latter to veto it. We like our politics pink, our energy green, and our ledger sheets always in the black. We enjoy a mountaintop vista and an artisan brew at the house of a cultivated host (twins back from Cambridge and looking like a million bucks), while down in the valley, where the beers are cheap and the views less stunning, the classics get pulled from the library shelves.

The fourth and final assumption on this dismal list holds that any organization, be it academic, commercial, or even ecclesiastical, is best headed by an individual from far away. According to this corporate-inspired wisdom, the president of the Vermont State University system ought to have been recruited from Mars; the selection committee got no farther than Texas, but they tried their best. Perhaps only someone hailing from so far away could be as genuinely startled as President Grewal seems to be at the backlash to his proposal. Anyone who’d lived in Vermont for at least a year could have warned him that going after library books was probably not his most auspicious move. Ours is a state where any town of any size, and a few of no size to speak of, boasts its own modestly stocked public library, where independent bookstores still exist and turn a profit, where writers are so plentiful that you can’t gas up your car without the risk of wrapping the pump hose around the legs of a distracted novelist. And yet, the clueless nature of the president’s decision is not the regrettable byproduct of a long-distance hire so much as the rationale behind it.

Of course, the official rationale is that leadership recruited from a distance brings a fresh perspective, a vision unencumbered by the myopia of familiarity. What the leader brings instead — and is expected to bring — is a ruthlessness unmitigated by any personal investment in the institution he comes to head or any knowledge of the culture that informs it. What the leader also brings is the comforting assurance that, just as he was willing to pull up stakes and migrate to a new location, he will be able to do the same thing once his visionary innovations are about to bear their bitter fruit. He can act with the courage that comes of transcending consequence, the knowledge that he can rise like a hot-air balloon from the country he has laid to waste.

These four assumptions — that democracy is dispensable and leaders alone are culpable, that money matters most and hiring from afar is always best — are the hallmarks of a society in which the interests of a few are routinely secured at the expense of the many. They belong to the credo of those who fancy themselves masters of “the real world,” the ones who can always be counted on to read the writing on the wall — who can read any writing at all so long as it isn’t found in a book.

Do I go too far in seeing the perfect conjunction of these four assumptions in the decimation of a library? What could be more inimical to such an anti-humanistic mindset than a commonwealth of borrowers sharing a physical repository and a habitable space, one in which values other than money are affirmed in volume after volume and an implicit equality exists in that sharing and that affirmation? No doubt there are better alternatives to the way things usually seem to work in our society, but I doubt we are going to find them with nothing more to guide us than an algorithm and nothing else to teach us but a screen.

Garret Keizer, a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and Virginia Quarterly Review, is the author of nine books. He lives in Vermont.