Friday, January 02, 2004

Keeping Everything In Focus



There are more scientists alive today then at any other time in history. Likewise, the literacy level of not just the western capitalist societies but also the literacy rate the entire world is increasing with every year. The result is a boom in the arts and sciences; more people then ever before are meeting, sharing ideas and spreading information and not just in the traditional print and televised media but also across the Internet and through newly developing electronic media.

One of the most significant opportunities and greatest challenges provided by the information field today is keeping track of and distributing this bulk of information.

I first became aware of this phenomenon while working at Barnes and Noble as a bookseller. On a daily basis, people would come into the store looking for the latest book by their favorite author, or a magazine that featured an article on recent economic or technological news; once a month, at four thirty in the afternoon, we would be bombarded by calls and customers requesting the latest book announced by Oprah on her show that afternoon. Every summer, school children and their parents would come in, a dozen at a time, looking for the great classics of literature and I found it to be both a supreme challenge and an exquisite accomplishment in being able to help people find the book, magazine or movie; the information that they were searching for.

I have always had a love of literature. Both of my parents are teachers and instilled in me at an early age an appreciation for the arts in all their forms. Then one afternoon, a librarian friend and coworker of my wife came into the bookstore. I helped him find exactly the book he was looking for, without having to consult the computerized store database, as I was familiar with the section and author he was in search of. He suggested later to me that I might look into perusing a career as a librarian specializing in reference. I didnít think much of it at the time but later, I decided to look into the prospect of perusing just such a career, out of a desire to switch from a corporate retail atmosphere to the more refined environment of academia.

It is in just such an academic field that I wish to pursue a career as a reference librarian, a desire fostered, no doubt, as much by my upbringing by two dedicated academics as my innate love of books in general and literature in particular. This admiration for the arts and sciences is a necessary quality in the up and coming generation of librarians, in order that they may fulfill the needs of todayís varied institutions with a sincere and knowledgeable grounding in the information sciences. Acquiring a masterís degree in library science from the College of Information Studies will further my pursuit of a career as a Cataloger by providing me with the skills that are required in a field that is rapidly advancing towards being a hybrid of both traditional print and digital media.

***



This was my Entrance Essay for Grad School, hence the rather pedantic voice. Academics seem to like that sort of tone, as they keep asking for it in papers, over and over again. It must work, because it got me into the College of Library and Information Studies at the University of Maryland. I decided to post this essay, not just to show off my skills at writing Bullshit Academic Twaddle (a skill I have since honed in my first semester at University) but to answer a question often posed to me. Some people think it odd that I am going to Grad School in order to become a librarian.

Person: So, wait, you want to be a librarian?

Me: Well, yes.

Person: Why on Earth do you want to be a Librarian?!?

Thatís a good question. It isnít because I like the stress of being in school again after years of being outside of a rigorous academic environment and it certainly isnít for the fame or fortune. This combination of high stress and low yield led a friend and fellow Student Librarian to remark that the bar was never set so low. I tend to agree.

We Librarians donít do it for the money; a shocking and wholly alien concept in a capitalist society I know, but just try and imagine actually doing something you enjoy for a living. Which isnít to say that I enjoy being anal and filing things. As my wife can attest, Iím not the most well organized person and have a tendency to pile my clothes on chairs and leave dirty dishes in the sink.

I suppose itís partially to undermine the stereotype that Librarians are all middle-aged spinsters with prudish sensibilities and a vast collection of comfortable shoes.

Itís also partially to take a stand against the strident and disturbingly widespread a-literacy that threatens to overtake Western Civilization. This might sound like hyperbole to some but Iím serious. People may be reading more but they are understanding less. Our critical thinking skills are withering, most notably in the press, which, especially in this country where corporate media consolidation has drasticly doubled the number of mouthes but severely decreased the number of things they are saying. Itís not that people canít think critically anymore but that they simply donít want to. And technological advances, while helping to make our lives easier in many regards are aiding the spread of this problem. (Neal Stephenson goes into this phenomenon briefly in his novel, The Diamond Age where people are able to get by rather comfortably in life without ever having to really learn to read because everything is illustrated by moving pictures and dancing icons that convey just enough information to get by but not enough to understand why we should want to do anything more than just get by).

Now Iím not saying that I want to stop progress or go back to the way things were a hundred years ago. Thatís just silly Neocon talk and much to pat Buchananís chagrin, impossible. Iím not trying to conserve anything. I just want to preserve something that humans take for granted, namely their freedom to access Information without it being mediated by some do-gooding third party, restricted by a self appointed Big Brother, or classified into nonexistence by some dimwitted Corporatist monopoly, blithely stumbling towards fascism under the guise of Homeland Security and Tax Cuts for All (wealthy doners).

So yes, I want to be a Librarian. But not because I want to make the world a tidy place where everything is in order. In fact, I want just the opposite. I want a future rife with chaotic ideas. A world where multiple points of view and radical notions are shared freely. A future where we can debate the hell out of the newest, shiniest theory and progress towards something better without fear of pissing off some funnel-headed boob who thinks his old fangled King James Notions are the One Right Way for this and every other country.

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Update: Edited to remove fnords.

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