This September, returning residents of East Quad were dismayed to find that the dorm’s Benzinger Library had sold off its collection of hundreds of CDs and DVDs, converting it from a circulating library into a so-called Community Learning Center. Outraged by the decision to unload the library’s collection and fed up with the general lack of transparency on the part of University Housing, several students have banded together to form the Benzinger Library Cooperative to rebuild from scratch the once-mighty collection of media free from the meddling influence of University administrators.

Elliott Mallen

The prolific BLC founder and Residential College senior Ed Atkinson spoke with me about the organization’s goals, saying that “as a co-operative we are working together to reverse the crippling effects of University Housing’s imperialist policies aimed at destroying our historic library.” They are well on their way to doing so. The rock upon which the new collection is built is a burned CD of Parliament’s Greatest Hits and an old TV Family Classics tape of The Waltons (which, according to official BLC literature, provides “a more wholesome, red-state experience” that “may cause meaningful connections with others”). Second-hand magazines ranging from FHM to the Economist have begun trickling in. The collection’s first pornographic film, C3P-HOE, has become a perennial favorite among Benz patrons. After several weeks of accumulation, the Benz now boasts a collection of approximately 20 CDs, 40 magazines, a handful of videos and a small dish of complimentary mints.

Anyone is allowed to check out material from the new student-run library. All a customer has to do is write his or her name on the official piece of notebook paper along with the item being checked out, and the name is crossed out when the item is returned. Despite the apprehensions of some over this complete reliance on the honor system, there has yet to be a single reported theft even after several weeks of brisk circulation. BLC volunteers sporting orange armbands (“for easy recognition and to represent the struggle of and commitment to liberating the Benz,” according to BLC literature) are maintaining a constant vigil to protect the collection from sabotage at the hands of malicious University Housing officials. While the BLC is encouraging the incorporation of less mainstream items, all donations are welcome.

The BLC’s dealings with University administration have been less than successful. University Housing is trying to maintain control over the library without providing any material assistance to the students’ efforts. Atkinson describes Director of Community Learning Centers David Pimentel as “a bureaucrat of the most aggravating sort” for refusing to relax his iron grip on the Benz and relinquish control to students. But in the end, fruitless negotiations will have no impact on future BLC operations. “Generally, we’re pretty fearless,” boasts Atkinson. “We’re running a library, and they can suck it.”

The efforts of the Benz Library Co-operative are indicative of other attempts among East Quad residents to maintain control over their own living space. Cooperative organizations like the BLC and the East Quad Music Co-operative operate under the assumption that a dorm is a student’s home, and that every resident has the right to exercise a large degree of influence over it. Housing is adamantly opposed to this idea and is instead striving to make dorm life as stale as possible. For example, a vacant office in the East Quad basement was recently handed over to the RC student government to convert into an open lounge. Students gladly took to moving furniture in and painting the walls graffiti-style until their efforts were brutally halted by the patronizing interference of Housing operatives. These officials think they’re doing students a favor by teaching them to be responsible future renters when all they accomplish is fostering resentment.

Another example of unnecessary Housing meddling in student affairs is the recent efforts of officials to eradicate any and all remnants of originality from East Quad’s basement café, the Halfway Inn (known colloquially as the Halfass). Up until two years ago, students were encouraged to decorate the Halfass however they saw fit. Sadly, the enlightened minds in University Housing decided that it would be in the students’ best interest to replace the vibrant murals with a bland shade of white paint and destroy the subdued ambience by installing soul-suckingly drab fluorescent lighting. After enacting these changes and facing the inevitable torrent of criticism, Housing benevolently offered to hold a mural-making contest in which Housing administrators would select a student to paint a pre-approved mural. An alternative proposed by students is to hold a mural day in which all residents are encouraged to just show up and start painting. According to Atkinson, Housing is not thrilled with this idea, as “they are dedicated to making East Quad one big corporate break room.”

Given the current housing crunch, it’s not surprising that University administrators are hell-bent on making dorm living such a tortuous experience that residents striving for a little less authoritarianism in their lives flee to the student ghetto as quickly as possible. However, the stated goal of the upcoming North Quad dorm is to make on-campus housing more appealing to upperclassmen by providing a more apartment-style living environment. Of course, no amount of amenities can make up for the feelings of ownership and community that come from being able to exercise control over one’s surroundings without interference from above. Or, as Atkinson more fittingly puts it, “We just don’t need the grown-ups. We’re big boys and girls. We can do this.”

 

Mallen can be reached at emmallen@umich.edu.

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