When I was in the fifth grade, I think it was fifth grade, I cheated. The class was library and we were supposed to commit the Dewey Decimal System to memory. I loved (still do) the Dewey Decimal System but since there was a big poster with the details on the wall, I saw no reason to waste time memorizing and I wrote it in pencil on my sleeve.
Kindly librarian liked me even though I hadn’t been that great of a student and so when I aced this test she made much of it. I felt a twinge of guilt which grew to immense proportions came the weekend. I went pheasant hunting with my father and several of his friends. One came up and introduced himself as the librarian’s son and proceeded to tell the assembled group about my perfect score.
Dad beamed and later told me how proud he had been. “Keep it up son and you’ll go far.” Well, I never felt worse in my entire life. Dad’s favorite aphorism was “honesty is the best policy” and I had just cheated and abetted an implicit lie, and to this day I remember averting my gaze as he looked into my eyes. I’ve done wrong since, but I don’t remember cheating at school again. And, funny thing, I began to work harder at my studies and got better grades.
The episode rekindled a fondness for librarians that began in Chicago about five years prior when my folks took me to The Music Man at the Schubert Theatre. Librarians. Marian was beautiful, could sing, and had a tender heart. Anyway, the research project currently occupying my time has brought me up to speed as to the nature of modern librarians and an even more profound admiration and respect. Few examples:
First, I found myself in need of something from the Buckminster Fuller archive at Stanford. (Fuller was the guy who invented the geodesic dome). I looked through the online Finding Aid (basically a detailed outline of the papers and objects) and located the folder in which was the stuff of my interest. I emailed a request and sort of forgot about it for a few days when an envelope arrived in the mail with copies and a bill for six bucks. Six bucks!
Later I found that in a library at Harvard were copies of letters between various members of a certain family written over a period of seven decades. On the site I found mention of a student research assistant service. For fifteen dollars an hour I could engage a student to look through files under my direction. So, using that Finding Aid I narrowed the huge trove down to the correspondents and time period that were pertinent.
The person looked through those files and without going into great detail told me what he thought he’d found. Sounded interesting and so he had them scanned and sent and interesting isn’t the word. Fascinating is more like it. New details, corroboration, and different points of view – all from the comforts of my office. Right here in River City. Got out my binoculars as I waited for the download.
Emboldened, I began a search at the National Library of Australia. Similar but different. The Finding Aid held tantalizing clues and Canberra is even much further than Palo Alto or Cambridge. No research assistants there, but there is a society of professional historians and several responded to my query. One was such a perfect fit it was scary. I must be piggybacking my roommate’s karma.
But everybody isn’t involved in research and one might think that Amazon could have wrought the same sort of havoc in the public stacks as it has with bookstores. Not so. They always seem busy. There are all sorts of reference materials, scads of periodicals, wi-fi, and of course books. Recently I asked a librarian friend in New England about the books. “Do people still come in to read yours?” I asked. She chuckled and replied “The large print editions are very popular. We had 200 people on the waiting list for Fifty Shades of Grey when that first came out.” And that’s in a town of 6,600 fine souls. The building is only a few years old, but they’re already in the process of doubling the size of their parking lot. Hmmm. I wear glasses. I’ve wondered. And I’m headed east in the morning…