This interview is a segment of the blog series titled “Academic Librarians on Intellectual Freedom and Change.”
What do academic librarians around the world think about intellectual freedom, diverse voices in literature, and the evolving role of libraries in the digital age? We wanted to know, so we engaged in enlightening discussions with several of them.
Following insights from Jeremy Upton and Michelle Blake in previous weeks, the third instalment of our 6-part series features an interview with Beau Case from the University of Central Florida. Linda Bennett from Gold Leaf led the conversation.
Linda Bennett: Thank you for making the time to talk to us, Beau. Please describe your role as a librarian.
Beau Case: I am the Inaugural Dean of Libraries at the University of Central Florida (UCF), which is a public research university with its main campus in unincorporated Orange County, Florida. It is part of the State University System of Florida. When I became a librarian, I chose to specialise in modern languages and at one time could read or speak 11 languages. I did this for 25 years before I went into library administration. The collections I have developed have included very diverse works on the history, culture, and politics of the countries in which I specialised.
LB: Disinformation and misinformation are a real battleground in the pursuit of knowledge. When did you first become aware of this?
BC: It was in the 1980s, when I was working at UCLA, that I quickly became acquainted with censorship and the complexities of US federal state rulings on censorship and pornography, including what the American Bill of Rights says. Senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms had threatened to revoke NEH funding for several artists and one came to the university to give a talk. A junior female English professor had carried out some ground-breaking work and her theory was being applied to social analysis, which I featured in my newsletter coverage of the event. A senior male member of the faculty complained. He was upset because he thought his own work was better and should have been featured, disregarding the fact that the university had just conducted a public forum on censorship and bias.
LB: Most universities now encourage the recruitment of students from diverse backgrounds. What is your experience with maintaining a balanced representation of perspectives in the library? Have there been particular challenges you have faced in the past?
BC: When I moved to the University of Michigan in 2001, it had a radical politics collection, and I began to add to it, choosing books written from the perspective of both left and right, as well as the centre. Academics who were of a liberal bias quickly objected to some of the material I was collecting. My response was that my role was to capture history as it was happening, even if it was ugly. Most of the items I had placed in the collection were ‘grey’ material or from mainstream publishers – they could have been picked up at the Frankfurt Book Fair; but faculty didn’t want any extremist views whatsoever to be represented in the Library. I should add that in my entire career I’ve only been attacked by people on the left of the political spectrum.
“We should never forget that collections serve communities.”
I also collected ephemera, seeking out works on topics such as migrant governments which were being published by small publishers. I was proud of this work – we had some German items that weren’t even held by the German national libraries – but it disappointed faculty. I wanted to fulfil the values of the Bill of Rights and the promise of Higher Education. We should never forget that collections serve communities.
LB: Can you share any specific instances in 2023 where the deployment of unusual/unorthodox learning resources and/or the freedom to read was celebrated in your library?
BC: The case of Ron DeSantis, who is the Governor of Florida and has written a book, is interesting. In my view, UCF absolutely has to have it, because some people on the campus would want to read it – whether for or against the ideas it contains.
Cultural minorities are reflected in the library’s holdings, but perhaps not enough. A large, well-funded library like the one at the University of Michigan spends millions each year on foreign language literature and culture; however, a general failing of Western academic libraries is that they don’t stock scientific works in non-Western-European languages, even if they are ground-breaking. At Michigan I subscribed to Latin American periodicals in classical studies. UCF is designated a Hispanic-facing institution, but its library carries few publications in Spanish. It’s true the curriculum is entirely in English; even so, the library is not serving the more general reading needs of some foreign students. This is an area of the collection at UCF that I want to expand. There is social bias in many academic libraries’ collections: for example, most will carry a range of pro-choice works on abortion; fewer will stock works from the pro-life movement. We have to do better. We cannot be censors.
LB: There has been considerable recent publicity about how new graduates have not been taught to think for themselves. How does your institution/library foster student success?
BC: A big part of the American academic librarian’s role is to foster information literacy. It’s a standard for library instruction programmes. Students are shown how to find information and evaluate its authenticity; and there is at present a move also to encourage them to be more critical from a social justice perspective. However, in some quarters on campus information literacy is not well understood: faculty know about it, but university administrators often don’t. It can be a lively conversation starter at university events!
LB: Does UCF have a formal policy concerning the use of Artificial Intelligence?
BC: The use of AI for research and teaching is covered by the University’s existing policies on plagiarism, privacy, etc. and by state and federal law. There have been some potential breaches: for example, the STEM faculty is intent on building language programmes from materials not covered by contractual text and data mining permissions.
LB: Building on Barack Obama’s message about the power of books, can you share examples of how literature has influenced leadership or personal development within your academic community?
BC: Unlike many American university libraries, UCF doesn’t have a “banned books” event to celebrate books that have been censored elsewhere – not for any political reason, but because there isn’t sufficient capacity in terms of space and staffing. I’m sceptical about such events in any case, as the turnout is often low and the impact negligible. Nevertheless, UCF continually celebrates the book and the right to read diverse books. The library features a prominent new books section, and the new library coffee shop conspicuously features graphic novels. Though UCF’s collections are now mainly digital, we do care about reading and are trying to create a culture of reading in print for our undergraduate students.
LB: The modern teaching and research landscape is both complex and dynamic. Particularly since the Covid lockdowns, librarians seem increasingly to have led from the front. Can you describe your role and the role of the library as an agent for change?
“Everything we do is a longitudinal social science experiment.”
BC: The role of the library is both to embrace the digital age and to create interest in works in all formats, to accommodate different ways of working and preferences. Everything we do is a longitudinal social science experiment. We are learning human behaviour as it unfolds right in front of us. Personally, I don’t think libraries should have lots of policies and procedures – making sure that new books or graphic novels are shelved according to some arcane system devised by librarians, for example. Students will show us the way – if they’re intrigued by the books and put them back out of order, that’s great!
I am in no doubt about the importance of being a good communicator to achieve success in academia. The doctoral education programme is designed to produce researchers, not teachers, but teaching is what we must do well in public higher education.
LB: As you take your library into 2024, are you feeling optimistic?
BC: We have a quarterly staff meeting. Typically, we talk about news, but our final meeting in 2023 was all about our roles and values as we contribute to higher education. This makes 2024 look wonderful! We will keep on doing what we’ve always done, only better. It’s why I’m always excited about driving to work in the morning, even though I’ve had a bad day the previous day. I moved to this state fully aware of the politics and it didn’t worry me, because I saw the potential for growth in the state and the institution itself. What goes on in the state outside the walls of the institution is obviously important, but it’s imperative not to let it create too much noise. I know we’re making an impact here by educating people and helping them to improve their lives. That’s why I do what I do: because I can make an impact on lives and research. So 2024 will be a good year: we will build on our successes.
LB: Beau, huge thanks for these insights. I hope 2024 will bring all the successes that you hope for!
[Title image by Kobus Louw/E+/Getty Images]