UC Berkeley Students Occupy Anthropology Library, Hoping to Save It from Closure

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

A group of University of California at Berkeley (UCB) students are entering the second full week of occupying the school’s Anthropology Library, slated for closure. The silent protest organized by students has had them setting up makeshift beds among the library collections, and they plan to remain inside until the school agrees to keep the facility open. The Anthropology Library is only one of its kind at a public university in the United States, and it is one of only three at any higher education institution.

UCB Chancellor Carol Christ believes closing the facility will help bridge a budget gap, saving the university $400,000. Christ believes the collections could be moved to other facilities across campus, and the space could be used instead as a reading room.

Students disagree, noting that the library’s rare materials are a crucial resource for anyone studying the humanities and social sciences. Because the staff knows every resource within it and because those resources are so specialized, shifting the collections elsewhere would not only risk loss of vital research and primary source material but would also disintegrate the interconnectedness built around such a focused collection.

“This plan once again emphasizes the disconnect between the administrators of the University of California and its mission to “serve society as a center of higher learning, providing long-term societal benefits through transmitting advanced knowledge, discovering new knowledge, and functioning as an active working repository of organized knowledge”,” said the student organizers behind the Anthropology Library occupation.

Many universities, public and private, are home to specialized libraries and collections. Their purpose is to both preserve those materials and to grant access to them for the purposes of learning, research, and scholarship. Where public libraries serve the needs of the community and are not repositories of all knowledge, academic libraries operate with the opposite ethos–they are repositories, and specialized libraries such as the Anthropology Library exist in order to collect and retain as much information, material, and ephemera as possible.

But the materials don’t live in these facilities to be preserved and shut away. They’re there to be preserved and cared for, while also being used to spark curiosity, engage learning through primary source material, and foster ongoing scholarship. Librarians and researchers who operate these special collections have unique educational backgrounds and skillsets which make their presence within them crucial. Students, faculty, and outside researchers are able to access these resources under the guide and expertise of trained professionals.

“UC Berkeley’s plan to close the Anthropology Library will destroy the curated collection of material for research from students who depend on it, and confine the disarticulated material to physical locations that our community partners cannot access,” said the student organizers.

It should not go unnoticed that it is the Anthropology Library threatened by closure. Anthropology is the student of the human condition, past, present, and future, and it is an arena where the bulk of scholarship and research is on people of the global majority. In an era of increasing censorship and white supremacy, marked by ever-growing christofacism, disseminating materials about those who do not fit the cishet, Christian white male mold says more about the underlying beliefs of why the library is not seen as a vital resource but instead a way to save $400,000.

America is still the richest country in the world, and yet to cut costs, one of the wealthiest public institutions in the country with an estimated $6.8 billion endowment, it’s the library on the line.

This isn’t about a $400,000 budget gap.

Students activists emphasize that this library’s closure will also have an especially big effect on some of the most marginalized within the school.

“This decision will disproportionately impact socio-economically disadvantaged students, including many underrepresented minority students, on this campus. This is especially poignant with regard to the anthropology department, as our own student population is 34% Latinx identifying, an outlier on campus,” they said. “The closure of the Anthropology Library undercuts UC Berkeley’s widely proclaimed commitment to its students and their educational needs, as well as its commitment to discovering, transmitting, and storing knowledge. As graduate and undergraduate students of UC Berkeley, we call on our university to stop prioritizing extravagant expenditures, such as the four billion invested in BREIT last December, over its commitments as a center of higher learning… Carol Christ said it herself, all we need is four hundred thousand.”

Moreover, the closure of this library puts significant strain on partnerships cultivated between the school, the library, and the Indigenous communities impacted by the university’s residence on stolen land.

“[W[hile we are hesitant to use their support lightly, it’s important to us to recognize the impact of this library closure on our Indigenous American community partners,” explained the students. ” The letters of support we’ve received from a number of Indigenous tribes in the defense of our library are incredibly significant symbols of a slowly healing relationship. To dismantle and restrict access to a collection of material with cultural significance to these community partners would perpetuate the same ignorant attitudes towards Indigenous Americans that have hurt the University’s relationship with these communities in the past.”

This is not the first protest by UCB students to occur over the potential closure of the Anthropology Library. In 2012, the library was occupied in protest until the university agreed to keep it open. No end date to the agreement was put into writing, and thus, when the news emerged of the new threat to closure, students picked up where their predecessors left off.

To support the students and community members occupying the Anthropology Library, you can do a couple of things. First, follow and share their progress and updates on social media. If you’re nearby, take the time to stop by the library in support, whether that means staying for a few hours to deliver food and drinks or staying longer to help in further organizing.

Wherever you might be, those behind the effort to save the Anthropology Library would appreciate financial donations via their Give Better page.

“At this point in the occupation, we’re asking for your donations so that we can sustain the size of our protest for as long as we need until the administration of Carol Christ guarantees our library’s survival. Night to night, we have between 20-40 occupiers staying overnight. Your money will go towards feeding occupiers, printing materials for distribution, and other expenditures that will allow us to continue fighting for our basic public education resources,” said the students.

Every dollar goes directly to helping the protestors keep up the fight until the administration changes their mind and recommits to their own priorities of preserving, discovering, and sharing knowledge.

For more information about the students, the protest, and the history of the Anthropology Library, dig into the New York Times piece published today. This story hitting the national headlines is another crucial step in understanding that this isn’t about a $400,000 budget gap–if it were, the school’s alumni would be chipping in in a heartbeat.