Joe Benning: Reverse the decision to close physical libraries in the state university system

This commentary is by Joe Benning, of Lyndonville. He is a former state senator for Chittenden County. It is written as an open letter to the Vermont General Assembly chairs on Education, Institutions and Appropriations.

Frankly, as a former legislator, I’ve been reluctant to become involved in your work. However, I feel an urgent need to contact you to add my name to the growing list of those extremely upset over the decision to close physical libraries in the new State University system. As chairs of your respective, pertinent committees, I believe you have the power to reverse this decision.

Joe Benning

One of my first jobs in high school was to work stocking shelves in my local town’s public library. From that time forward I have appreciated how integral a part libraries are to a sense of community, no matter where or under whose authority they may exist. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate for any of you what that means.

Parochially I join those already speaking out loudly against the loss of a physical library in a three county area that desperately needs to retain such facilities. In 1975 I entered what was then called “Lyndon State College,” formerly the State’s first teacher’s college. It became immediately apparent that the college library was not just a wonderful asset for the college community, it was a vital component in the town/gown relationship. Students “from away” frequented a library often populated with citizens from around the Northeast Kingdom (and beyond) for research, forums, classes and the like.

Additionally, our library in Lyndon became a repository for Vermontiana, especially under the guidance of my political mentor, the late State Senator, Professor Emeritus and Vermont historian Graham Stiles Newell. The collection of books he amassed, which still exists today in the library room dedicated to his memory, is quite sizable for such a small college. My greatest alarm in this controversy is the real possibility that valuable collection is somehow lost to public access and/or dispersed.

I read some time ago that this decision is motivated, at least in part, to an alleged downturn in circulation numbers. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it is not relevant to the discussion. In my four years at the college and going on nearly fifty as a resident of Lyndon, I cannot recall ever taking out a book from our library. On the other hand, I spent countless hours in that library as a student, probably more so after graduating, to expand my education and community fellowship.

I also read that college officials believe digital, online volumes can meet the students’ needs adequately. With the introduction of personal computers during my lifetime, I’m cognizant of the promise technology brings. But now able to compare both the before and after, my generation can attest that no technology can replace the quiet solitude and person-to-person educational learning experiences found in a library environment. As legislators during Covid-19’s remote meetings, you know full well that Zoom meetings did not, and cannot, compare to in-person conversations. Digital technology is meant to compliment, not replace, our person-to-person interactions.

The final argument I’ve heard is that this move will save money. Alumni and current students strenuously disagree. Do the current Trustees seriously believe elimination of the central gathering place so critical to student campus life will attract more students? Have they even considered the possibility that current students, disgusted by this move, will decide to go elsewhere? I was the first student elected to the Vermont State College Board of Trustees back in 1978. That Board and the current one have always had the same problem: lack of money from a legislature statutorily required to foot the bill. But libraries have never existed to make a profit. Allowing the current Board to eviscerate the soul of these institutions is simply intolerable.

I’ll close with a quotation from a leather book mark I received years ago when I ordered the six volume treatise on Thomas Jefferson by Dumas Malone. It should serve as a rallying cry for this discussion. Said Jefferson: “I cannot live without books.”

Thanks for listening.

Image courtesy of Public domain

18 thoughts on “Joe Benning: Reverse the decision to close physical libraries in the state university system

  1. Very sad indeed. I’m glad my daughter going to college in the Fall recently decided not to attend a VT college she was accepted into for this reason. Not all young adults want to read books digitally. She is one of them. Hopefully they change their mind on closing them down. In the meantime she will pay extra to go somewhere who values books.

  2. Eliminating books and documents is a dumb idea, since not everyone can read as well on screen. You also cannot mark pages and flip back and forth as needed to understand the material, find conflicts or check foot notes. — Now you may not understand what I just said, but as a writer with 30 years of experience I just told you truths that others are either not thinking of or ignoring.

  3. Hey Joe, here is a couple of books you should read.
    The 5000 Year Leap by W. Cleon Skousen and The Making of America: The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution by W. Cleon Skousen.

    Maybe you’ll learn something.

  4. Mr. Benning has graciously engaged this debate on Vermont Daily Chronicle. And rather than reiterate the give and take, I hope TNR readers will venture on VDC to consider the discussion.

    We should all be thankful he is willing to engage. Disagree as we do, from time to time, it is this discussion, and its specificity, that is important for the continuation of our Republic. Criticism comes with the territory. I, for one, will continue to focus on the issues, including the art of argumentation, and try not to take it personally.

    And again, in this regard, I challenge Mr. Benning’s colleagues and supporters to join us with equal specificity. It is on forums like this where the tenants of our Constitutional Republic are most evident.

  5. Anyone paying attention to this understands, the newly congregated “Vermont State University” colleges are in nearly bankrupt fiscal condition. The reasons are many and systemic. The college system cannot be resuscitated by nibbling around the edges as this initiative does.
    If Chancellor Sophie Zdatny and newly minted President Parwinder Grewal had any chutzpah at all they would shut down the Johnson facility. While certainly picturesque, it is sparsely attended, hard to get to especially during winter months, nothing for students in the community – essentially a million miles from nowhere. It is simply a place today that doesn’t attract enough students to be viable.
    The administration knows that and still will not act.
    While doing away with library books has made teachers and students apoplectic because they weren’t included in the decision is absurd. To ask the teachers and students to come up with ideas to fix the system is ridiculous as none of them would or could recommend the drastic measures needed to right the ship. The Chancellor, President and administration continue to abrogate their responsibilities by kicking the can down the road over and over.
    The only one that raised the red flag vigorously was Chancellor Jeb Spaulding in 2020. And, when he did, there was such a firestorm, he was forced (or chose) to quit realizing that no one in governance has the chutzpah to do something meaningful about it.
    And so it still goes…

  6. When we get rid of books it’s going to be really easy to erase history, really easy to change history, really easy to delete press reports all because they are not on paper.

    Suddenly somebody can press a button and all that is on the internet is gone. pffff….

    Going digital is perhaps the most exciting concept ever thought of for a dictatorship and indoctrination.

    Just think suddenly everything can be changed. Articles, books, research modified, vanished or memory holed so nobody can find it.

    Closing of Vermont libraries is a fantasy beyond the imagination of Karl, Mao, Stalin, and the little pudgy guy in North Korea.

    We are headed for a very dark and cold climate with many of the changes coming to Vermont, and I’m not talking environment.

    • Neil, you hit that right on the head. Once a book is printed you cannot change what it says. Digital information can be altered or denied access to, unless you have downloaded it, but even then there can be an embedded limit to the length of time it is accessible. No internet or no electricity and the sharing of knowledge comes to an end. Which of course is the desired outcome. Remember; books are Y2K compliant.

      • Come on guys. Check out what’s happening right now to some of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books. They’re getting updates to be more inclusive, progressive, and more acceptable to today’s readers, according to The Roald Dahl Story Company, which owns the rights to the books.

        Once you download a text, you can save it in your own library to cross-reference it with any interloper who later edits it.

        Re: “No internet or no electricity and the sharing of knowledge comes to an end.”

        If there’s no electricity, a lot more than sharing of knowledge comes to an end. Be reasonable.

        And when the books are burned or the library burns to the ground, what then? If you want to save books for posterity, fine. Create a Fort Knox like depository somewhere for insurance purposes. But don’t take taxpayer money to fund libraries in every educational institution. It’s not just intellectually foolish, its economically inefficient.

        • Jay, both can be correct. You have good valid points. But if you have any experience with, say wikipedia, with postings they have etc and you’ll see there is wisdom in a book.

          Jay, they completely control your phone and most certainly your reader. They can turn it on and off at their discretion. This doesn’t invalidate what you say. AI is going to make things even more difficult to discern truth.

          Books are man’s best friend. One very much so.

  7. Closing these libraries is just one more step into turning our citizens into well-controlled, easily indoctrinated non-people who can’t read and so won’t read and will simply take orders from the “powers that be” who are elitists and socialists, even fascists. Sad and tragic. I worked at Kellogg Hubbard Library in Montpeler all through high school and ran the Children’s Library on Saturdays while a Senior at Montpelier High School. I constantly checked out and read books from that liibrary during all my years growing up in that town. I became a published writer and a college writing teacher and a worldwide successful editor as a result. We have to work harder on literacy skills in America while we still can. It is only through excellent education that we can keep our God-given freedoms going forward.

  8. Joe,
    Appreciate all you’ve done but we have to get this state under control. For the population there should only be one college that has state funds. 4 schools means they are always begging for dollars. This among many things needs to be right sized. The legislature wants to spend money that we don’t have. How many people need to vote with their feet till the political clan finally figure it out? Please work on making this place more affordable!

  9. Mr. Benning’s remarks are, as usual, chock-full of logical fallacies.

    For example, he writes “…no technology can replace the quiet solitude and person-to-person educational learning experiences found in a library environment.” Really… says who?

    Then he goes on to project his opinion on our legislators, saying “you know full well that Zoom meetings did not, and cannot, compare to in-person conversations.”

    I suspect Mr. Benning is claiming to be an authority on Zoom meetings because he once was a legislator. In the realm of logical fallacies, this is called an ‘appeal to authority’ – in which the arguer claims an authority figure’s expertise to support a claim despite this expertise being irrelevant or overstated. So, now ‘in-person conversations’ are a prerequisite for being able to read, as though we can only read a book while having a conversation with someone simultaneously? So much for ‘quiet solitude’.

    So, what’s Mr. Benning’s motive for presenting this flawed argument? It’s the same old same old – “… the same problem: lack of money from a legislature statutorily required to foot the bill.” Never mind that there is no statutory requirement to fund a library nor ‘eviscerate the soul of these institutions’ – as if they have a ‘soul’ in the first place (an equivocation fallacy).

    Again, almost every argument put forth in Mr. Benning’s missive are logical fallacies. And he’s in good company. Even Jefferson’s claim – “I cannot live without books…” stated in his letter to John Adams, is not only incomplete, it’s called a hasty generalization. Jefferson could just as accurately have said that he can’t live without the printing press, or without pen and parchment, or without ink. And I can only wonder what Jefferson would have said if he had an iPhone 14 Pro with a LexisNexis or Westlaw app in his pocket.

    • Statutory Clarification: There is extensive Vermont statutory legislation regarding college, university, and school libraries; including any other library or archive that is open on a regular basis and makes available on site or circulates materials to the public without a fee. The State University library system is fee based. If a State University library is deemed to be available without a fee, it may fall under the definitions and jurisdiction of the State Library Board and Department of Libraries.

      None the less, and while the related statutes are extensive, I have yet to find any statutory directive, other than those expressed by a designated library board, requiring a specific level or form of investment in a given library.

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