Friday, February 5, 2010

In the library

Anna has been posting on her experiences at the University of Cambridge libraries, and it sounds like more posts are to come on what to consider when visiting reference libraries. I'm also fresh from conversations with a visiting friend about the library at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (and the frustration of odd hours and cataloging practices in some overseas institutions), so I was in the mood for offering a general reflection on libraries. Feel free to treat this as an open thread.

It's always a joy to read about libraries; the professional importance of these institutions for academics as well as the aesthetic importance of them for bibliophilia makes them a common enough topic on these sorts of blogs, but I think it's always valuable to read about new perspectives... especially when advice is given for libraries where the process of application and entrance is more complicated than simply walking through the front doors. Most all of my experiences in towering research libraries of the sort that Anna mentions have been with the Library of Congress, where I try to hole myself up whenever I'm back in Arlington to visit. As a cataloger I've also learned to appreciate the library in a special way, from the inside. In graduate school I was advised by a theology professor to pursue work here, and told of the close connections that theologians traditionally share with librarianship as a profession. The advice has served me well, and I think that the benefits of my current work will certainly be taken with me elsewhere. Gaining a new perspective on academic work outside of the concerns of the individual researcher or teacher helps to open one's eyes about how the wider process works, and contributes to more effective use of one's own time as a scholar.

Pelikan's Idea of a University: a Reexamination includes a chapter on libraries that argues (if I recall correctly) for libraries as really the central and binding institution of any university. I think that's about accurate... one realizes when working here that the mission of the library pre-dates and will likely outlast most anything else that is going on around campus. Realizing this helps to put into perspective many of the calls for urgency, hand-wringing about certain standards of relevance, or accusations of antiquarianism that risk confusing what exactly is going on here in academia. Librarians are often much more aware of all of these concerns than most people realize or give them credit for... often it is in the library where the best balance between being one step ahead of the game and cognizant of the distant past is best achieved. The depth of what sits here is just breathtaking, even in a smaller or mid-sized library, let alone an enormous one.

Anna also links to the wonderful pictures at Librophiliac from a few years ago. If you haven't yet seen them, be sure to take a few minutes and scroll through.


  1. Evan, I just started working as a catalog assistant at Fuller's David Allen Hubbard Library. It's amazing how much more of an appreciation I have for libraries and for the academy after being behind the scenes of what goes on in scholarship. I will have to admit, it is often frustrating working their, but only to the extent that I see the deficiencies. Having a cartoon book on Zen Buddhism, but not having Robert George's "In Defense of Natural Law." Altogether libraries are so unique, beneficial, and entitled to much more appreciation than what is given. Not to mention they have some really cool things about them. Our rare collections library is unbelievable! It's not everyday you see a book dating back to the creation of the printing press.

  2. Three cheers for libraries and librarians! My love for libraries is one reason I can't wait for Andrew Abbott's eventual book on knowledge, as I suspect and hope he'll have a good deal to say about libraries and their future.

    Let me share one of my favorite sections from the beloved Gilbert Highet's Man's Unconquerable Mind:

    "Together with that [literacy], we may hope for the steady expansion of libraries throughout the world. No library is useless. The smallest local collection of books may contain unique treasures or inspire a genius. Every library is an assertion of man's durable trust in intelligence as a protection against irrationalism, force, time, and death. A town or church or school without an adequate collection of books is only half alive. Indeed, libraries are far more necessary now than benefactors like Carnegie ever imagined, because, in the constantly growing flood of useless and distracting appeals to our surface attention--rapidly written magazine articles, flimsy and fragmentary newspapers, and torrents of talk, talk, talk pouring from the radio--they provide a place to rest, be quiet, step off the moving platform of the Moment, and think."


  3. Andrew... that's great to hear that you're working at a library. Be prepared for more frustrations, that's sort of just the way of things. But that's also, I think, why library time offers so much perspective on the workings of academia.

    Sam... wonderful quote. Especially, "A town or church or school without an adequate collection of books is only half alive." I think the mundane, local importance of having a place for community use of books is what's so important, and perhaps (ironically) what gets easily forgotten in the sort of huge research libraries that Anna discusses. But really, it's much of the same thing simply on a different scale.

  4. Another wonderful paean to libraries.

  5. Thanks for linking to my post! I'm almost reading to post a guide to archival/reference libraries. I'll let you know when that's up!