The George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library. Credit: Ally Markovich

After nearly three months occupying UC Berkeley’s anthropology library, a beleaguered group of protesters packed up their sleeping bags last week and declared victory. 

The George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library will remain open — but as a reading room controlled by the anthropology department.

UC Berkeley has agreed to keep about 20,000 volumes on the shelves of the small library, preserving approximately  40% of the books currently in the space. The library will continue to serve the community, staffed by a student worker.

But its main function as a circulating library is over. Patrons will be able to browse the collection, but they won’t be able to take the books home. For that, they will have to request books from the main stacks or an off-campus warehouse in Richmond.

“We’ve lost our circulating library. There’s no way around that,” said Dr. Sabrina Agarwal, chair of the anthropology department. “But I think we’re trying to think of it as the best possible outcome.”

The plan is a compromise recently put forward by the anthropology faculty. It attempts to deliver on the students’ desire to preserve the experience of conducting academic research by browsing for books on curated shelves, while taking into account the university’s unwillingness to keep supporting a circulating library that’s use has been dwindling.

Protesters occupied the library from April 21 until July 15. As time wore on, support from the faculty, some of whom were initially involved in the sit-in, waned, Agarwal said. In addition to students from the anthropology department, the protest was sustained by outside groups like By Any Means Necessary (BAMN).

Hoag holds a sign that reads "Keep the Anthro Library open! Defend Public Education!"
Adi Hoag, an organizer with By Any Means Necessary, slept overnight in the anthropology library during the occupation along with dozens of other protesters. Credit: Zac Farber

The protesters continued their chief demand that the university restore the library’s fundamental function — circulate books in the field of anthropology. It was a rarity even among the nation’s best research institutions; Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania are now the only two schools with their own anthropology circulation libraries.

But UC Berkeley wouldn’t budge on the cost.

Closing the anthropology library, along with the physics-astronomy and mathematics statistics libraries, will save the university about $1.2 million each year. The amount is a sliver of the university’s $3.2 billion budget, but the university says it’s a necessary cost-saving measure, especially as circulation dwindles and costs rise. The closure of the other libraries did not face the same opposition.

In the end, the university agreed to give the department a one-time $45,000 allowance to help it transition the library into a reading room. But in taking control of the library, the anthropology department also agreed to take on the cost of running it. Agarwal said the department will use endowment money dedicated to maintaining the space to help defray the costs.

Students have protested plans to reduce services or close the anthropology library multiple times in the last decade as the university library’s budget has shrunk.

In an increasingly digital world, the sit-in drew attention to the value of analog research, conducted with the help of a librarian, in the company of others working in your field.

“This has shown a lot of students and academics across the world the value of the paper book, how it should be used in research and how we should continue to teach students about the value of research and libraries. And that’s a skill that’s been lost, I think,” Agarwal said.

Now, some of that knowledge is being dispersed. To access the books that won’t be held in the anthropology library, students will need to use the stacks or request books online. The collection will be split up, though students successfully advocated for some smaller collections, like books on Native American studies, to be preserved together.

The student organizers celebrated the end of the occupation online. “We view this win not as the end of this fight, but as part of the continuing struggle for public education,” the organizers of the occupation wrote in an Instagram post. “Our occupation has shown that we do not need to accept administrative “final decisions” or “budget cuts.”

The department also agreed to give a limited number of community members access to the library’s materials for free, a key ask for the students occupying the library. The space will continue to be used for faculty and students working with Native American tribes and other underrepresented groups.

“It was important to us to make sure that anyone, no matter their relationship to this campus, would continue to have access to materials related to anthropology,” Jesús Gutiérrez, a doctoral candidate in the anthropology department who helped lead the protest, wrote in an email.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...