Thanksgiving Spirit, Revisited

Thanksgiving has come and passed, leaving the majority of us stuffed and satiated. Yet, as finals week looms like the darkest of clouds, poised to seep the remaining life force from students, it strikes me that perhaps we shouldn’t be so hasty to put the spirit of Thanksgiving to rest. Rather, I suggest we take a moment—librarians and students alike—to appreciate and give thanks for the vast resources our libraries provide.

Too often is access to information taken for granted, a circumstance that rings especially true in the case of America’s technology-driven society. With powerful search engines and personal devices permeating our everyday lives, access to information largely goes unchallenged. Such is the relative ease with which we access information in this country that the issue of non-access is all but rendered inconceivable. Not once at the Wells reference desk have I informed a patron a resource was completely unavailable. Services offered by IU Libraries like inter-library loan (with a two-day turnaround), document delivery (with a week-long turnaround), and purchase requests nearly always fulfill information needs. Oftentimes, however, even these relatively quick retrieval periods are considered too slow by patron standards. I couldn’t begin to guess the number of students who have approached the reference desk needing resources for their assignment due the very next day. This reveals a certain expectation held by the millennial generation that information should be instantly accessible and probably points to a common belief that the general facility with which we find information is enjoyed everywhere. Yet it is important to acknowledge that this is not always the case and that our ease in accessing resources is a luxury of circumstance more so than an extensive norm.

If your Thanksgiving resembles mine, there’s always one cantankerous relative who spouts some version of the timeworn adage “You don’t know how good you’ve got it”, proceeded by an anecdote repeated for the umpteenth time regaling the hard times of yesteryear. And while a solid eye-rolling is the appropriate response accorded by tradition, there certainly is truth in the saying. A great many of us don’t truly realize the privileges we enjoy by living in a highly-developed country. One such privilege is our information infrastructure. The United States boasts one of the largest national library systems in the world (an estimated 120,096 libraries of various types); our country is practically inundated with libraries and archival depositories when compared to the dearth of information services found in developing or transitional countries.

I was confronted with the implications of this disparity a few years ago while living abroad for a year in Peru. I attended PUCP, the top-ranked university in the nation and one of the twenty-five best universities in Latin America. Despite such accolades, I was absolutely shocked at the modest size of the single university library on campus. Having attended IU during my undergrad, I was thoroughly spoiled, expecting a much more extensive collection than what I found. PUCP’s library holds roughly 130,000 books and has access to 38 databases–a paltry figure when compared to the collection held at Indiana University. Frustrated with the lack of relevant material available for my research topic (the subject matter, funnily enough, pertained to Peruvian poetry), I turned to IU’s online repository of journals and e-books as my main source of documentation.

The three-story library on the PUCP campus in Lima, Peru
Well Library: a real whopper by comparison

Here in Bloomington, we are fortunate to attend a school with not one, but roughly twenty-five library or archival institutions. That number does not even begin to cover the broader network IU Libraries integrates through online databases, the libraries of statewide campuses, and other academic library systems. At IU, students can access more than 800 databases, 60,000 electronic journal titles, and 815,000 e-books, along with non-digital holdings on campus as well as through IU’s seven other regional campuses. To make a truly illustrative comparison of the disparity in information infrastructure, our Wells Library alone—featuring a collection of roughly 3 million books—holds more physical publications than the entire Mexican National Library (a holding size of 1.25 million documents) and the Chilean National Library (a holding size of 1.1 million documents) combined!

The intent of this post is not to be didactic in nature, calling on you to extol the virtue of the United States and chide anyone who dares to want more from our libraries or nation at large. Rather, my purpose in writing was to express my own amazement at the sheer amount of information to which we have access and the incredible potential of that bounty. Perhaps growing up as a child of an immigrant, this interests me on a personal level. My own grandmother is illiterate, my grandfather did not receive an education beyond the equivalent of the sixth grade, and while my father is a fairly successful software engineer, he is completely self-taught and did not attend college. I look at the profound differences between these three generations, my own included, and it is staggering. I’ve heard about the hardships my grandparents had to endure throughout their lives, of the difficulties my father faced upon emigrating to the US, and I contrast it to my own circumstance, so very privileged by comparison. This generational evolution within my family, I believe, is almost entirely the consequence of increased access to information.

Information stands as a vehicle to education and the liberation that follows that education, and I lament the fact that the ease with which many people in this country can access information is not a global standard. So, in this post-Thanksgiving season, I’m grateful. Grateful to be a part of IU Libraries, an institution which promotes the culture of learning. Grateful to those patrons who utilize the information resources offered by our libraries. Grateful for the ways in which information access has improved the circumstances of my family and others. I guess I’m just really grateful.

—Catherine Fonseca
Suggested readings:

Global Library Statistics.” OCLC, 2014.

Havard-Williams, P. “Libraries and Information In Developing Countries.” IATUL Proceedings, 1981.

Menard, Laura. “Information Atrocities: Records and Memory in Post-Dictatorship Latin America.” Diss. University of North Carolina, 2011.

Ugah, Akobundu D. “Obstacles to information access and use in developing countries.” Library Philosophy and Practice, 2007.