Doug and the Librarian Profession (my final for LS501)
Doug's Note: What you are about to read is a final submitted in my LS501 class answering three questions dealing with why I wanted to be a librarian, what did I think about rumors that it is dying out as a profession, and what did I want to give to it (roughly). I have only slightly re-edited this upon posting (edits show up in square brackets), so some parts may come off a little odd. I will likely go through it in a couple of days and edit it around some, but you first readers get a chance to see what sort of thing I consider a personal essay. This is as much a demonstration of the way I write as a presentation of what I wrote. Some of you might enjoy it. Others will just shake your head, no doubt.
I have wanted to be a librarian since I have been about twelve. Maybe ten. Well, that's not quite true. I have been in love with the concept of being a librarian since then, but for most of my life, it never quite felt like a real job. My hobby was books, and later information; it seemed unfair to be paid for it. In fact, for the first 27 years of my life, as romantic as the notion of working with books was to me, my direction felt like it involved physics. Astrophysics. The study of the big, the cosmological, the immense. There is a joke in physics that goes: "To a mathematician, pi is the ratio of diameter to circumference; to a chemist, pi is 3.1415...; but to a astrophysicist, pi is about 1." The numbers were so huge and the concepts took millions and billions of years. Precision took backseat to being overwhelmed by their majesty. I thought I wanted that. Then, in 2003 and 2004, I started working hands on with some x-ray astronomy. I started doing more practical work. I had a philosophical side, too, that kind of helped around the edges; and I started doing research in epistemology and applied philosophy. Wrote up a couple of papers on it [my honors theses, not the sort published in peer-reviewed journals, just for clarification]. Then, all at once, realized neither physics nor philosophy meant anything to me. Not in the way they should mean anything. I had no intention of pursuing graduate work in them. I had no intention of being a lab-monkey. I had completed all my years of schooling, and was back at something like square one.
Then I remembered. I wanted to work with books. Even then (and this would be 2004), it felt like a cop-out. Could not tell you why, but it did. I decided, though, that I should get to working on it, and so I did. I applied, and finally got accepted, to a bookstore job. Part-time, did not pay super well, and it was a chain store (Waldenbooks, the increasingly defunct subsidiary of Borders). It was satisfying on a personal level, though. Through my years of reading for class and doing physics work and philosophy papers, I never gave up, not really, reading and enjoying being in the library. That first part-time job fell away to a better job, managing a bargain bookstore. The clientele was different, the stock was different. The conditions were different. I have often compared the experience to being in a sitcom bookstore. It was also eye-opening, because outside of owning a bookstore, or being some sort of middle management, I was at practically the peak of what one can do as a retailer. It wasn't enough. Books were commodity. My interests in information science and epistemology were merely fodder for some of the brainer, more talkative customers.
Suddenly, getting my butt into a library position looked to be the thing to do. I left Book Gallery, got my tests underway, and got into UA's MLIS program.
I find that my passion for the field comes from two separate directions. I am a bibliophile. Upon a recent count of my personal stacks, I have over 2900 books in my home library. This does not include digital books. I study stitches, bindings, glue types, inks, paper weights, cover types, and fonts. The best books tend to be the one in which all of those elements come together just to be forgotten in the reading experience; the overlooked work of a half-dozen masters. Digital formats close some doors and geometrically expand others. How do they fit into the whole reader spectrum?
I am also utterly fascinated with epistemology and the flow of information. How does information exist? What sort of presence does it have? Are there sets of individually true statements that become false as a whole? Can any set of information work as an explanation, or is there something about certain paradigms, certain world building attempts, that makes them more effective and truthful? What elements are the difference? These questions are things I think about all the time. I have also grown curious about the whole nature of difference between reading experiences, especially in light of the digital explosion. How much do we really read in e-mail? Are universities hurting or helping their students by migrating to digital databases? Do search engines return the results we want, or are they merely expert and making the results they do return look like what we need? If three men read Moby Dick, does the one with the Kindle hold a different book than the one with the library book and are they reading the same book as the one to which the guy with the audiobook listens? There are almost too many questions to ask in this field, and it seems like this is the perfect time for me to be a librarian; because we, as a profession, seem to be tackling many of these questions head on.
Of course, the question can be asked: "Are you sure this is the perfect time to be a librarian? Isn't the field pointless now that we have Google?" I do not really know where people get that sort of information from, but I know it's false. Off the top of my head, I can name at least one fact that show that libraries are not quite the dying old dinosaurs they are thought to be. I read a 1939 book put out by the ALA called something like Libraries of Tomorrow (who doesn't want to read about 70 year old book talking about the present, and getting it oh so wrong, though occasionally getting things right, like the growing popularity of audio-books?). It cites a stat that, in the late 30s, 45 million Americans had no ready access to a library. I do not know what ready access entails, distance-wise or whatnot. Looking at statistics from around 1940, though, we are talking about 45 million out of 130 million total. One-fourth of the people in this country, during the Great Depression which is often noted as a landmark time for libraries as they stood as a mixture of entertainment and self-education, did not have a library. At all. This says nothing about those who had a "ready library" only an hour away, that might not have had the ability to really visit it. We have now reached a point in this country where just about anyone who wants to reach a library can. School kids have libraries roughly at their disposal all the time. Libraries are stocking the things that people want to read, have increased information of genealogy and local history, and make safe places for kids and families to visit. I do not see a "dying" trend there.
Yes, library budgets are being cut across the board. Yes, people think they can get buy with just Google. Some politicians are describing libraries as "a hobby". I do not think the job is dying, though. I think the background noise has been cranked up so high that it could be severely hurt, even killed out in some places. This is why we have to sell ourselves. Not even aggressively, just steadily. Penicillin pushers are considered life savers. Arbitrators and litigators have made themselves as American as apple pie. We need to let people know that we Information Specialists and Bibliologists are just as powerful as a tool. Being able to sort and respond to information is vital to today's definition of success. We let the information revolution fall under the control of businessmen, college-grad upstarts with dollar signs as a guidepost. In some ways, it is too late for the librarians to become a full part of the Internet, to reel it in and improve it, but we can at least get into it enough to understand it. We can develop tools and methods to enhance it. And we can offer an alternative to the instantaneous gratification of the whole thing; the idea that five minutes is all it takes to learn something. The ultimate expression of the Principle of Least Effort. We can offer deeper research for those willing, and help to train others how to get more out of what they have. At the same time, there is nothing stopping us from promoting the simple joy of reading, of listening to music. Libraries offer doors to the community, providing space and identity, whether the community is a town, a city, a college campus, or what-have-you.
What will I add to this community door? What will I bring as an information specialist? Who knows, really. I am still torn between my straight bibliophilia and my more complex need to understand comparative bibliometrics. Maybe I should put my money where my mouth is and become an active promoter of the profession. My current bend is to first work on helping teach others how to be better researchers, maybe with a tinge of applied epistemology. Students have to understand the joy of the hunt before they can really care about their research papers. I seem to be good at that, at finding their secret love of a topic they thought was dry and boring to them. I want to keep working with that, but as I work with that, I want to make it better. What triggers the sense of "truth" to our eyes, does it matter how it is presented? How important is it to know this? If I can answer those questions, I will have more than made my mark, my contribution.
Si Vales, Valeo
file under (...on Libraries & Books)
and (... on Myself)