One thing’s for sure—Occupy Lamont Library isn’t hurting anybody. Since Sunday, a handful of GSAS, Divinity School, and College students have “occupied” the library, setting up what they call “a persistent community space for critical thought” in Lamont Café. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a group of Harvard affiliates having a conversation in a social space like Lamont. In fact, we see no problem in their staying as long as they would like, considering the innocuous nature of their gathering. Yet, we can’t help but notice that for all its laudable methodology, the occupation seems empty of substance.
Let’s face it: Nobody has trouble grappling with the metaphysics of the library. To listen to the rhetoric of Occupy Lamont, one would think the Harvard library system were in some sort of existential crisis. (To liquidate the collection or not to liquidate?) One would expect to see students stumbling blindly into bookshelves, deliriously confused about the nature of “knowledge creation” at Harvard. Yet, as most Harvard students and faculty can attest, the task of “transforming a collection of books into a thriving space for cultivating knowledge” at this university has been quite successful. Further arguments about the deleterious effects of “neoliberal imperatives” and the “profit imperatives” on Harvard libraries makes us wonder whether Occupy Lamont is not engaged in some kind exercise in fiction. Regardless of whether Harvard can be classified as “neoliberal” (a vague term to say the least), it certainly is not a for-profit institution. Far from being driven by profit motives, Harvard’s library system is merely attempting to get up to speed with advances in technology and digital research while remaining financially sound.
The fact of the matter is that much of Occupy Lamont’s rhetoric about communal knowledge creation and community space is really only transparent window dressing for the occupation’s true motive: to protest the likely layoffs of library employees. We agree that layoffs are regrettable, and should be handled with the utmost care, but they are an inevitable economic necessity. It is just bizarre to wrap up the issue in a post-modern ramble that detracts from the actual conversation. Occupy Lamont would be a more worthwhile contributor to the community if it instead adopted the strategy of the Student Labor Action Movement, which addresses issues of labor forthrightly.
Furthermore, considering Occupy Harvard’s earlier demand that Harvard be a “University for the 99 percent, not a corporation for the one percent” it is surprising that this latest incarnation of the protest movement would be so opposed to increasing student employment. But this cuts to the heart of the matter: Occupy Harvard is in denial about the existence of trade-offs. They want more money to low-income students, and more jobs for staff. They call for better “knowledge creation,” but shudder at the sight of advancements that require fewer employees. They want more money from the endowment, but reduced incentives to attract qualified endowment managers.
Again, we welcome Occupy Lamont to go about their business. But a discussion of the kind that they claim to be interested in having ought not distract from the issue at hand. As a community, we do not need to re-imagine the fundamental properties of the library. There is no impetus to do so, and Harvard’s librarians, led by University Librarian Robert C. Darnton ’60, have been working not only on modernizing our system but also making Harvard’s material accessible for free online. Occupy Lamont distracts and potentially impinges on this real progress, and stands in the way of a frank discussion about layoffs.