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Reading Room History

An Interview with Professor John Garnett
June 2008

"A mathematics library is what a laboratory is to a chemistry department. It's essential."
         -UCLA Mathematics Professor John Garnett

How did the reading room originate?

In the late '40s and '50s, there was an Institute for Numerical Analysis (INA) supported by the federal government and situated at UCLA.* INA had a collection of books, but the institute closed down in the '60s and left the collection homeless. At that time, the Mathematical Sciences Building was being built under the supervision of chairman Lowell Paige. Paige added the 5th floor Reading Room to the building plans and put the old INA book collection in it. This was the start of the Mathematics Department Reading Room, which is a separate library for the Mathematics Department independent of the UCLA main library system.

What is the importance of a library collection dedicated solely to the mathematics department?

One of the main advantages of the Reading Room is its accessibility. You can look something up at any time of the day or night, while UCLA's Science and Engineering Library (SEL) on the 8th floor has many of its books checked out.

When you measure a mathematics department, and they're different throughout the country, and the world even, one of the things you measure is access to the library and how readily available books are. Right now, UCLA's Engineering and Mathematical Sciences collection in the SEL is doing pretty well; it's for engineering and mathematics. But it doesn't have 24-hour access.

I can see where over the last 30 or 40 years, the availability or the inaccessibility of books has focused people's careers. You can't change scientific fields readily if the books are not there, so people tend to get locked in to their own research area and not move. It's particularly important for the grad students to have this place where they can sit on Saturday afternoons or Sunday evenings and nights and read books. Now we're trying to buy more books and put the catalog online so people can tell whether something's in there or not and know how to find it.

What is unique about the collection and reading room?

Its immediate accessibility to the people in the department, including the graduate students. Some math people are like gym rats-people who are always playing basketball-but ours are always hanging around doing math. They're like mathematical gym rats and at midnight, they want to go look something up in a book. Say it's Sunday night and I'm trying to figure out something that's in a book from 1957. I can get in my car and drive to the reading room, and it'll be there, while the SEL library will be locked shut. I guess it's like being a junkie, you need your math fix. You want immediate access. So this is the main thing.

What makes a really good math book?

Math subjects evolve. A subject will be in a steady state and then some bright people will come along and introduce new ideas and change it so much that it influences other subjects. It then becomes a very active research area with new problems that people can solve, often because of its applications. For example, Terry Tao and Ben Green have exciting new research about prime numbers that uses a lot of ideas from other parts of mathematics, combinatorics mainly, some very abstract. This is now a new fertile area with a lot of new things people are going to be able to do. There are old problems that have been around for many years and now there's a new set of ideas that people can try on these problems. A really good book will make all this accessible to students so that they get into this new area while it's still blossoming. It's very hard to learn this kind of mathematics because it's so new.

Another thing is that you sometimes have an area that's semi-mature but in a confused state because it's being hit by many different ways of thinking. Then someone comes along and organizes the material and makes it accessible to beginners. This a great service to people who are going to work on related areas of mathematics. If you don't have the books, then mathematics is going to be done by very, very few people in very few places, because one needs to be on top of lots of new material at the right time to contribute.

How is the reading room collection funded and supported?

Our main support comes from the departmental budget, and we have the Jerome J. Belzer, M.D, Reading Room Fund that was endowed in 1998. There is a plaque honoring Dr. Belzer on the Reading Room wall. He’s an interesting story. Dr. Belzer had been a child prodigy and chess champion in Nebraska. When his
family moved to Los Angeles in the ’50s he entered UCLA as a mathematics student having skipped two years of high school. He graduated from UCLA at age 19 as an outstanding mathematics major and wanted to go on to graduate work in mathematics but his mother wanted him to become a doctor. So he became
a pathologist and more wealthy than most mathematicians. When Dr. Belzer died his estate endowed the Jerome J. Belzer Chair in Medical Research at UCLA and through then Dean Roberto Peccei’s efforts this donation was supplemented by a smaller endowment for the Mathematics Reading Room. We’re also
supported in part by a donation from the estate of Madeline Youll, who was the Reading Room librarian many years ago and who is still remembered for always leaving a dish of candy out for the students.

What are your goals for the future of the reading room?

Now things have evolved to the point where it's no longer useful to have a full collection of bound mathematics journals because many journals are available online. So we're going to change it so that we have fewer and fewer hard copy journals and many, many books. (Here we are continuing a policy initiated by Ricardo Perez-Marco.) Books are not really available online. The ideal situation is that the Reading Room is open to key-holders 24 hours a day and the books are inside because they cannot be removed from this room. This is an ideal that never works because people take books out to their offices. But we are looking for ways to resolve this retention problem. For example, we may put in some kind of scanner/copier so that people won't walk away with the books. We would like more study tables for grad students. More shelves for the 350 books we buy a year. Ten books per foot. Thirty-six feet of shelf space. I have space for three more years of books. We'll see after that.

*INA's primary function was "to conduct research and training in the types of mathematics pertinent to the efficient exploitation and further development of high-speed automatic digital computing machinery" and attracted the involvement of prominent applied mathematicians. The formal establishment of the UCLA Computer Science Department eventually followed in 1968.