Archive for August, 2012

15
Aug
12

Mr. Larry, you must have many books

On more than one occasion when I taught in the Middle East, one of my Arab students said to me: “Mr. Larry, you must have many books.” (He would proclaim this with a flourish, in an elegant-Arabian sort of way.) I would respond by telling him and the class: no, I don’t have many books at home. I don’t need to, because the library has many books, which all of us can use. (Never miss a chance to plug your collection.)

bookRecently my esteemed colleague Kathy Gaynor wrote that “academic librarianship has absolutely nothing to do with a love of reading or even a love of books.” Kathy then went on to enumerate a “sampling” of 15 books she’d read in the past 18 months. I sensed a contradiction. So allow me to weigh in.

At the risk of sounding corny or precious, I’ll confess outright: I love books. But not the smell or heft or even the heritage of them; rather, the depth of them. The idea of them. And I feel that informs my job as an academic librarian — a Web services one, at that.

Have nurses no passion for the needs of the ill, or lawyers no love for argument? Are journalists indifferent to chasing a story? (I’ll answer, since I did toil on Grub Street: certainly not.)

More to the point, does academe as a whole have no love of reading, considering that, for centuries, a passion for intellectual inquiry (whether through reading or research) was held to be one of its central tenets? (At least, until getting a job assumed primacy.)

Kathy’s point was that librarians’ jobs are primarily about selecting, storing, organizing and promoting access to information — information that just happens to be textual. Granted! But most of the librarians I’ve known — even academic ones, who tend to affect a cool, detached demeanor — were drawn into the profession at least in part out of a passion for reading, learning and literacy. This is hardly surprising — the prospect of merely organizing information wouldn’t attract many people into an MLIS program (or at least not many I’d want to hang out with).

A spirit of reading advocacy is inculcated at library school, though it’s really just preaching to the converted. On the job, I’ve seen this passion rear its head more times than I can count. As with nurses and journalists, our collective passion gets us out of bed in the morning and impels us to take the initiative in professions — news, health care, libraries — that aren’t terribly well remunerated.

At this point some readers might be inclined to think, “but books are on their way out anyway — so why invest any passion in that?” The rejoinder is that books aren’t going anywhere, though the printed and bound physical object we’ve used as a delivery platform for books is giving way to digital delivery platforms (thus TRU Library has a large and growing e-book collection).

The fact is, books are platform-independent. The book is a form — so many chapters, so many pages — not an object. But that doesn’t reduce it to merely a textual delivery system. A book may be a sustained work of imagination and art (novels, poetry collections) or a sustained work of analysis or scholarship (histories, etc.). And reading a book is always a sustained act of exploration, a sustained application of thought and attention. Books will always be valued for their ability to deliver a full story, a full argument. Reading them develops the mind (cognition, literacy) while opening a window on depth and complexity.

falling booksBooks, then, are anti-superficial, in a time and culture when so much is superficial. Academic librarians by-and-large do love reading, and that informs what they do. And they love books — not sentimentally, not in an antiquarian sense or a fetish-veneration of the musty object. We’ve all de-accessioned (i.e., “weeded”) many dated or low-circulation books, consigning them to the dumpster without a qualm. Yet we love them for the central role books necessarily play in the knowledge-building and -sharing processes.

All professions are socially situated, are vehicles for interacting with society. Some even go further: as a vehicle for acting for society in at least in some cases. Witness the community care nurse, the teacher, or the Crown counsel who could earn more in other branches of law. If you boiled academic librarianship down to what makes it more than “just another job”, you would find the exciting (and often ephemeral) technological advances in storing and facilitating access to bits and bytes; but you would also find the furtherance of learning and literacy, which occur mainly through reading — particularly reading books.

This matters. Canada has an illiterate and semiliterate population estimated at 42 percent of the whole (similar to the U.S.), according to a CBC report (“Canada’s Shame”, The National, 24 May 2006). And we cannot, in academe, assume that our students will naturally develop a love of reading. Forty-two percent of college graduates never read another book in their lives (Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Knopf, 2009, p. 44). That’s why librarians, collectively, have associations, chapters and working groups devoted to literacy, and why we’ve adopted terms like lifelong learning and information literacy.

As Neil Postman observed, “Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us . . . But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?” (Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin, 1986).

Perhaps what Kathy meant (and I’m only guessing) is that being Pollyanna about books and reading, or naively, obstructively committed to them, has no place in operating an academic library. Indeed, all professions temper their idealism. Many librarians struggle to cast off the book-nerd stigma of librarianship — a very real stereotype that perhaps led that Arab student to assume my home was full of books.

However, Books R Us. They’re a big part of what I/we do. And if librarians don’t love ’em, at least a little, then can anyone else be expected to care about them?