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Silence in the Stacks

Silence in the Stacks
June 9, 2005

Some months back, one of the cable networks debuted a movie -- evidently the pilot for a potential show -- that inspired brief excitement in some quarters, though it seems not to have caught on. Its central character was someone whose grasp of esoteric knowledge allowed him or her (I'm not sure which, never having seen it) to command the awesome mysterious forces of the universe. Its title was The Librarian.

The program was, it seems, a reworking of a similar figure in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That's in keeping with the fundamental law of the entertainment industry once defined by Ernie Kovacs, the great American surrealist TV pioneer: "Find something that works, then beat it to death."

At another level, though, the whole concept derived from a tradition that is pre-television, indeed, almost pre-literate. The idea that a command of books provides access to secret forces, the equation of the scholar with the magus, was already well established before Faust and Prospero worked their spells. The linkage has also left its trace at the level of the signifier. Both glamor, originally meaning a kind of witchy sex appeal, and grimoire, the sorcerer's reference book, derive from the word grammar -- one of the foundational disciplines of medieval learning, hence a source of power.

Today, it's much rarer to find the whole knowledge/power nexus treated in such explicitly occultic terms, at least outside pop culture. As for librarians, they are usually regarded as professionals working in the service sector of the information economy, rather than as full-fledged participants in contemporary intellectual life. That is, arguably, an injustice. But the division of labor and the logic of hierarchical distinctions have changed a lot since the day when Gottfried Leibniz (philosopher, statesman, inventor of calculus and the computer, and overall polymathic genius) held down his day job running a library.

The most persistent aspect of the old configuration is probably the link between glamor and grammar - the lingering aura of bookish eroticism. At least that's what the phenomenon of librarian porn would suggest. The topic deserves more scholarly attention, though an important start has been made by Daniel W. Lester, the network information coordinator for Boise State University in Idaho. His bibliography of pertinent livres lus avec une seule main ("books read with one hand") is not exhaustive, but the annotations are judicious. About one such tale of lust in the stacks, he writes: "Most of the library and librarian descriptions are reasonable, except for the number of books on a book cart."

But the role librarians play at the present time brings them closer to the most pressing issues in American cultural life than any cheesy TV show (or letter to Penthouse, for that matter) could possibly convey.

Their work constitutes the real intersection of knowledge and power -- not as concepts to be analyzed, but at the level of almost nonstop practical negotiation. It is the cultural profession most involved, from day to day, with questions concerning public budgets, information technology, the cost of new publications, and intellectual freedom. (On the latter, check out the American Library Association's page on the Patriot Act.)

Given all that, I've been curious to find out about discussions by academic librarians regarding current developments in their profession, in the university, and in the world outside. A collection of essays called The Successful Academic Librarian  is due out this fall from Information Today, Inc. Its emphasis seems to fall on guidance in facing career demands. But how can an outsider keep up with what academic librarians are thinking about other issues?

Well, the first place to start is The Kept-Up Academic Librarian, the blog of Steven Bell, who is director of the Gutman Library at Philadelphia University. Bell provides a running digest of academic news, but for the most part avoids the kind of reflective and/or splenetic mini-essays one associates with blogdom.

My own effort to track down something more ruminative turned up a few  interesting blogs lus avec une seule main run by librarians, such as this one. But this, while stimulating, was not quite on topic. So in due course I contacted Steven Bell, on the assumption that he was as kept-up as an academic librarian could be. Could he please name a few interesting blogs by academic librarians?

His answer came as a surprise: "When you ask specifically about blogs maintained by academic librarians," Bell wrote earlier this week, "the list would be short or non-existent."

He qualified the comment by noting the numerous gray areas. "There may be some academic librarians out there with an interesting blog, but in some cases I think the blogger is doing it anonymously and you don't really even know if the person is an academic librarian. For example, take a look at Blog Without a Library. I can't tell who this blogger is though I think he or she might be an academic librarian. On the other hand Jill Stover's Library Marketing blog is fairly new and pretty good, and she is an academic librarian -- but the blog really isn't specific to academic libraries.... Bill Drew of one of the SUNY libraries has something he calls BabyBoomer Librarian but it isn't necessarily about academic librarianship -- sometimes yes, but more often not."

Bell listed a few other blogs, including Humanities Librarian from the College of New Jersey. But very few of his suggestions were quite what I had in mind -- that is, public spaces devoted to thinking out loud about topics such as the much-vaunted "crisis in academic publishing." It was a puzzling silence.

"I can't say any individual has developed a blog that has emerged as the 'voice of academic librarianship,' " noted Bell in response to my query. "Why? If I had to advance a theory I'd say that as academic librarians we are still geared towards traditional, journal publishing as the way to express ourselves. I know that if I have something on my mind that I'd like to write about to share my thoughts and opinions, I'm more likely to write something for formal publication (e.g., see this piece.) Perhaps that is why we don't have a 'juicy' academic librarian out there who is taking on the issues of the day with vocal opinions."

And he added something that makes a lot of sense: "To have a really great blog you have to be able to consistently speak to the issues of the day and have great (or even good) insights into them -- and it just doesn't seem like any academic librarian out there is capable of doing that. I think there are some folks in our profession who might be capable of doing it. But if so they haven't figured out yet that they ought to be blogging, or maybe they just don't have the time or interest."

Now, that diagnosis may perhaps contain the elements of a solution. The answer might be the creation of a group blog for academic librarians -- some prominent in their field, others less well-known, and perhaps even a couple of them anonymous. No one participant would be under pressure to generate fresh insights every day or two. By pooling resources, such a group could strike terror in the hearts of budget-cutting administrators, price-gouging journal publishers, and even the occasional professor prone to associating academic stardom with aristocratic privilege.

Full disclosure: I am married to a librarian, albeit a non-academic one, who knew about the World Wide Web (and the proper grammar for using various search engines) long before most people did. She has proven to me, time and again, that librarians do indeed possess amazing powers.
They also tend to have a lot to say about the bureaucracies that employ them -- and the patrons who patronize them. 

An outspoken, incisive, and timely stream of commentary on the problems and possibilities facing academic libraries would enliven and enrich the public discourse. If anything, it's long overdue.

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One of his previous columns was on the pleasures of reading encyclopedias.

 

 

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