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On the mission of the public university. And the Unabomber.

May 28, 2010, 8:07 pm

I was extremely pleased to find today that the 1939 LaFollette committee hearings on free speech and the rights of labor, all seventy-something volumes, were printed, bound, and on the shelf in my library, and I could check out every single volume and take it home until June 2011.  Which got me thinking about public universities, public libraries, and their accessibility to the public, even the Unabomber.

Everyone in Davis knows the Unabomber allegedly used our university library to, um, write his 1995 manifesto.*  The manifesto liberally borrowed from a book by a San Francisco stevedore-cum-philosopher named Eric Hoffer – and I mean “borrowed” in the sense of “if a student did this, she would be referred to Student Judicial Affairs.”   When newspapers published the Unabomber’s manifesto, a UC Davis student noticed that several sections matched underlined passages in the Shields Library copy of Hoffer’s True Believer.

In other words, it looked like the Unabomber had used our library to do his research.  The student notified the librarians, the librarians notified the FBI, the FBI notified the local press, and everyone in Davis began to imagine that they had seen Theodore Kaczynski hunched in a neighboring carrel.

Of course, just because someone underlined the relevant passages in the UCD copy of Hoffer does not mean that Kaczynski underlined those words.  But this scenario always made a certain amount of sense to me.  If one were a hermit in Montana, and one wanted to take a bus to the nearest big library that was completely open to the public, one might indeed think of UCD.  The university library has no barriers to the use of its stacks.  No one has to show identification; there is no visible security.  Anyone can walk in off the street, past the wonderful Arneson egghead sculpture, and read, say, part 66 of the LaFollette committee hearings, or Eric Hoffer’s True Believer, or any other of the 3.5 million volumes in the stacks here, without having to identify or justify himself.

I looked at the three copies of True Believer in the stacks today, and one of them was indeed marked up, with underlining and mysterious notations.  As creepy as it is to think that the Unabomber might have held this book in his hands, I must admit I have a populist pride in the very public nature of my public university’s library.

*See Sacramento Bee, “Unabomber Used Library at UC Davis?” April 10, 1996.

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