I'm thinking when gauging the importance of the university as an institution, maybe it comes down to the library?
Yes. There are multiple libraries here. Math has its own, Bio-Sci has its own. Art History used to have its own. Anthro has its own, etc. The math library was pretty awesome. For some reason I was on a kick to follow back the early history of sets and controveries over infinity and found a book that had collected most of the important papers and reprinted them just for this purpose. It had Cantor's early work on trigometric series and convergence and a selection of other papers. The check out policy was math grad students and faculty only. It's not that I really undestood any of that, but I could get the general idea. Now you just google:
Undergraduates have their own library, but the place is so packed it is almost impossible to find a place to sit down. This houses most of required reading for general ed. Unfortunately most of TJ Clarke's early books were there. Meanwhile Doe the main library is underused. It has all the books and materials the old art history library had.
In bio-sci you can really get a sense of a subfield by reading the journals and figuring out which are important and which are of minor interest, then read a few of most referenced works and trace their bibliography and footnotes. This was a fun job (9/hr). My biophysics buddy was blind, so I did the library work, found the articles and copied them and then read them aloud. It was like getting a degree.
Biophysics dept at UCB was a pretty cool place. It operated on the old fashion system of lots of time to find something that interested the students, and then gave them general direction, along with occasional reviews. Of course the administration closed this department down. They had their own machine shop which was a great place to study on its own. I could tell from the machines something about the fabrication systems and their histories. Over at LBL we had a room that had been used for laser measuring and optics. Going through the drawers, most of the machinist tools had a light rust on them. What a shame. It had been abandoned for years, probably since the 70s and that was back in the 90s.
These experiences gave me (I think) some insight into Marx (and Strauss) the hours and hours they spent in the British Museum. Doe has the complete British Museum catalogue. It took up a whole section of a wall in the old main reference section along with the big library catelogues of national libraries. Library of Congress had an entire card room of its own.
These are experiences that I suspect very few students (and hanger's on) get, so they have no concept of the resources available to them.
Most of all the above is computerized and it makes it much easier to find what you are looking for. Even so, there was something nice about finding a chair, putting down the backpack, and digging out the list and going through the card systems and catelogues, writing down the references and then going over to the interlibrary loan office and ordering books. A few weeks later a postcard came in the mail and notified me the books were waiting. I had this as a workstudy job under a prof in Anthro compiling a bibliography reference for African folklore and languages. My favorite example of obscure was tracking down a Tongo-Portugese dictionary, written by an English missionary and published on a small press in London in the late 19thC. It was small, thin leather bound with mysterious spots on the paper, but in relatively good condition. There was obviously no second edition.
I am not sure what to say on this thread.
The problem with universities is how they are run. The UCB administration are reactionary business thugs. Many faculty and students have been at war with them for decades. Still, it was possible to get the education I wanted out of the place as a student and then as a lowly worker. The essential tool was access, some card to carry that said I could be there doing whatever I was doing.