Tara Brabazon: Seismic shocks to information infrastructures

May 3, 2011

Tragedies are worms that burrow deep into memories. We carry postcards from our past into the present, but when disaster strikes a city we know well, memories crumple, twist, decay and dissolve.

In Japan, ten cities in the Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures were rumbled and crashed by an earthquake and tsunami. The chilling footage of a wave crushing houses, boats and trucks as if they were made of Lego is the shattering image of the year. But as the damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant dominated and then declined in the global news cycle, the human cost became jaggedly, brutally obvious.

Then there is Christchurch in New Zealand. When the spire of Canterbury Cathedral smashed onto the pavement below, it was clear that this earthquake would be much more damaging and deadly than the one that hit the city in September 2010.

During such tragedies, the inevitable focus is drawn to the collapse of iconic buildings and the imminent danger from unstable structures or nuclear and industrial leaks.

Universities are rarely mentioned. But when disasters devastate a city, how does a university survive? Higher education is a precious resource, but despite the talk of online learning, partner colleges and offshore campuses, universities are at their best when they are rooted in a city and grow through it.

I interviewed Timothy Dail about his experiences at the University of Canterbury after the earthquake. Tim is a PhD student at Canterbury and he teaches undergraduates. After the September 2010 earthquake, he became the College of Arts postgraduate representative to the university’s Library Task Force.

This body was established to consider the role of a university library in the information age. The University of Canterbury library system has a more urgent motive for reassessing its services than most. Damage from the first earthquake destroyed hundreds of library bookshelves and left the main collection residing on the floor. The library had been closed but was just about to reopen when the second earthquake hit Christchurch. The impact of this disaster was – literally – seismic. These tragedies have raised questions in Canterbury’s scholarly community about the importance of library services and how they should be delivered.

Tim is not a vice-chancellor, the head of marketing or a dean. He does not represent the university. He is a doctoral student, teacher and member of the task force considering the future of library services at a university rattled by two earthquakes. His views serve as a warning to those who have not lived through such a disaster to remember the value of a university library and to listen to the advice of the librarians who staff it.

* * *

Tara Brabazon: What brought you to Christchurch, and to the University of Canterbury in particular?

Timothy Dail: There is often disbelief among New Zealanders when I tell them what I do here: “An American doing a PhD in German in New Zealand?” Of course! Why not? The higher education infrastructure and offerings in this country can compete with anywhere else in the world.

I came to the University of Canterbury in September 2009. I had just finished my master’s in German cinema at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and I was thinking about how I might like my PhD to proceed. The German department at UMass is terrific, and I would recommend it to anyone, but I decided in the end that I would like to experience the type of doctoral training system in place in the Commonwealth and most European nations.

I set out looking for a supervisor whose interests would overlap with mine, and I considered cost factors and the places I might like to live. My shortlist included Australia, the UK and New Zealand, but I had trouble finding the right person to supervise my particular thesis area.

I remembered having read an article on “ostalgie” (nostalgia for East Germany) that I liked, and so I made contact with the author, associate professor Susanne Ledanff, who teaches at the University of Canterbury. The University of Canterbury has excellent facilities and a very efficient library system, and New Zealand has policies in place to protect the interests of international students in particular.

I also found out that international PhD students in New Zealand pay the domestic fee rate, something that Australia and the UK could not offer me.

I never doubted my decision to come. Susanne Ledanff and Peter Falkenberg (my supervisors) and I agreed on the topic and scope of my thesis, the university awarded me a UC Doctoral Scholarship, and here I am!

Where were you when the two earthquakes hit Christchurch?

I was at home in Christchurch in both earthquakes.

I was very fortunate that my housing sustained only slight cosmetic damage to the structure. Many people were not as lucky, but our city is very fortunate that the University of Canterbury’s student body organised a volunteer “student army” to help ensure that sure our city’s residents’ needs were met. Some of the volunteers were working 16-hour days, six days a week!

How was the university damaged by the earthquakes?

Well, the University of Canterbury campus escaped any significant damage in the first earthquake, which was actually much bigger than the second. I believe almost all of the most important buildings, except the central library, were up and running in three or four weeks.

The central library has not been open to the university community since last September. In a truly cruel twist of fate, the library had just undergone all the necessary remediation and safety enhancements to allow students and staff back inside, only to be rocked again within days of its scheduled reopening.

The second earthquake, while smaller, was closer to town, and so all parts of Christchurch suffered extensive damage in some form. The university was not spared this time around. The University of Canterbury administration has kept students and staff up to date on certain key buildings, and it looks like many of them should be ready for reoccupation within weeks to months, depending on the engineers’ reports.

We haven’t yet heard how long it will be until our library is ready for reoccupation, but the expectation is that the retrieval system will allow library staff to access the collection for pick-up at other locations. Limited access for library staff is being granted as each level is assessed as safe to make this possible. Currently we are using one of the specialist research libraries on campus, but access to the facility is difficult due to the sheer number of students who require its services.

Right now, many of the university’s teaching and recreational activities are taking place in tents on the parking lots, and we are largely without indoor toilet facilities. It isn’t ideal, of course, but there really isn’t much else that can be done.

What has happened to the teaching schedule and student learning since the earthquake?

It’s impressive how quickly the university reopened, given the circumstances. Teaching schedules are changing weekly, as courses have been restarted in a phased process. I certainly salute the people who are in charge of scheduling. That’s a difficult job, even with intact infrastructure! Initially there was some apprehension among students and staff about how things would proceeding, but it looks like most folks have settled back into some sort of routine.

That’s incredibly important right now given the trauma that some people have experienced. I think this is equally true for the teaching and support staff.

Many of us, students and staff, are also receiving a crash course in online learning environments. There simply isn’t enough room to accommodate every course on campus, so a number of courses have been switched to an online format.

Judging from my own students, I can see that a number of them are thriving online, despite their initial apprehensions about it. I think everyone in the university community is getting an education on education, so I suppose there’s something positive about the whole experience.

You are studying for a PhD at Canterbury. What happens to a doctoral programme when a disaster such as this hits a university?

Excellent question. I can’t speak for the scientists and engineers, whose work is obviously much different from my own, but I know that I and many others from my humanities cohort are limping along right now, as we have been since last September.

The university’s immediate concern was getting the undergraduates back on track. I can understand this to a point, as undergraduates rely on a rigid schedule of taught programming.

Postgraduates were encouraged to make immediate contact with their supervisors and to begin brainstorming about ways to proceed with their programmes. On the one hand, I welcomed that way of dealing with the fallout. On the other hand, though, I was very nervous to act, as one always expects the university to provide certain guidelines. Guidelines and memorandums were eventually provided, but it seemed that these came a bit later than they could have.

Since the university has managed to get its essential offices back up and running, postgraduates have received more information on what they can and can’t do to continue with their work. So far there have been several options, one of which is to relocate, temporarily, to another university in New Zealand to carry out research. The university is offering financial support to make such a short-term relocation possible.

Additionally, the University of Oxford has been gracious enough to grant funds to a limited number of Canterbury postgraduate students to study for two months at Oxford, all expenses paid.

But since doctoral students and other adult students are typically the “grown-ups” of the student body, we have issues we have to deal with at home – maintaining a household, caring for our children, maintaining partnerships, and so on. Relocation, even short-term, can be very difficult for many of us, especially some international students who don’t have the nationwide private support networks of domestic students.

I think the university recognises this, and so we are eligible for extensions of our submission dates and funding if leaving Christchurch is not a viable option. The university has also established grants for students to compensate for the degradation of facilities, and all thesis students were granted automatic two-month extensions after the February earthquake.

Overall, I think thesis students in the arts and humanities have been the hardest hit by the fallout of two major earthquakes. Students in law, engineering and the sciences tend to have their own in-house libraries, and so they have had a wealth of material at their disposal.

Materials in the arts and humanities, however, are housed in the central library. I can’t comment on everyone’s situation, but I do know that the work of most of my immediate colleagues has been impeded by the closure of the library.

That being said, our library staff have been phenomenal in helping us however they can, and multiple academic publishers have been generous enough to give us free online access to a wealth of journals, e-books and other materials.

But I soon found out that the heart and soul of my work is found in the stacks, particularly when I realised that many of my sources come from Germany, a nation which has certainly not embraced the online publishing craze. I think this is a major issue for any discipline that makes extensive use of non-English-language sources.

At first I thought that everything would be fine, and that I would be able to carry out my work as if nothing had happened. I could just sit at home, sip tea, and work. But then I started to notice something about my work and learning habits. With everything on screen, I began scanning instead of reading. I felt compelled to use the search function in Adobe to locate specific parts of a text to speed up my reading. I started looking at texts on the screen in a way that I would look at any other website on my monitor. I could click back and forth between Foucault and Facebook.

Let’s face it: the doctoral process can be isolating at the best of times, so the temptation to give in to distractions becomes much more influential when one is just one browser tab away from a chat with an old friend. Basically, though, the urge to read superficially and to cherry-pick became much greater, to the detriment of a lot of important contextual work that I would otherwise have read. My concentration deteriorated.

These are issues that I’ve heard about from other students as well, and it should certainly be considered by any university’s administration when it decides to start reducing its physical stacks.

To be sure, I absolutely love using databases and online journals, but there really is something about having a physical book in my hands that forces me to read and read deeply. I can’t just click through a manuscript; I have to read it to find out what I want to know, and along the way there are many new concepts and contexts that enrich my research and learning experience.

To borrow your term, Tara, the physical book helps me “scaffold” my thinking, and it forces me to read widely across my discipline and cognate disciplines. It contributes to the register of ideas that inform my thinking, teaching, and research.

I also find great pleasure in “surfing the stacks” and uncovering materials that I never knew existed. In a way, the process of research, for me and for many doctoral students, is also a physical process, and I think this type of hunting and gathering is incredibly important for scholarly research.

We have had a retrieval system in place since October and our librarians have done wonders getting materials to us, but it just isn’t possible to really know what materials are out there unless we can browse the physical collections. Despite living in the digital age, I don’t think today’s doctoral students can imagine experiencing the personal fulfilment of research in any other way.

What options are being considered for the future of library provision?

Well, that’s a discussion that is ongoing at the University of Canterbury, just as it is around the world, but I think in our case we’ve received a much louder call to action.

Two earthquakes have certainly given us a golden opportunity to initiate these discussions as we literally rebuild our physical book collections and experiment with new scholarly information infrastructures.

The experiences of thesis students and other researchers, who take having a well-stocked library for granted, are quickly becoming a case study in what it means to have only limited access to print media. In my own experience, I’m feeling a bit like a chemist without a lab, and I’m certainly not the only one!

So I hope that the kinds of experiences I’ve described will inform the university’s decisions as progress is made toward creating a library for the digital age. There are two task forces in place right now that are attempting to tackle these issues. One task force is dealing with the immediate issue of having a crippled library, and the other is tasked with looking at ways to make the library cost-effective without causing undue harm to the research and teaching needs of the university community.

I used to think that digitising things was the way to go, but now I’m one of the dissenters when it comes to the suggestion of digitising anything that can be digitised. But as I understand it, it isn’t just up to the universities to decide on these issues; publishers are switching to digital formats en masse. So it’s tricky all around. But it’s pleasing to see that so many different disciplines are being consulted for their input on where to take our library in the future, and that supervisors are consulting with their research students in order to formulate informed opinions on the research-driven learning process.

* * *

Disasters create new normalities and challenge assumptions. Tim’s words demonstrate that universities can survive an earthquake, even when buildings crumble.

Those of us outside a disaster zone can watch footage on television news and YouTube, and monitor Twitter feeds and Facebook updates, but it is hard to grasp the scale of disruption and destruction – or the ingenuity required to reclaim a university’s teaching and research from the rubble.

There is much talk in the UK about the retraction and closure of library provision. Such decisions, it is claimed, are justified by the scale of the nation’s deficit and by the need to make cutbacks. But I would like to pose a question. What is the cost of closing a library?

The loss to citizens and students cannot be measured on financial statements. Once collections are dismantled and librarians dismissed, the resources and expertise cannot be replaced. Whatever the cost of reading, the cost of ignorance is much higher.

The University of Canterbury’s staff and students know – through a disaster – the intellectual damage caused when a library is lost. Tim has taught us that literacy, learning and thinking transforms when the stacks are removed from use. Those of us in the UK can learn from the courage, questioning and consciousness of the scholars and librarians at the University of Canterbury. If their views are ignored, then our buildings may remain intact, but the infrastructure for learning and living will be destroyed.

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