Killjoy Was Here

The librarian as spoilsport

September 23, 2009

Recently I listened to a commencement speaker who said, "If faculty members can't offer students some hope and optimism for their future, some path of confident thinking in uncertain times, then we have no right or reason to be around them." I'd prefer offering students a sunnier picture from behind the reference desk, but the evidence invariably leads to something more menacing.

Consider this opening paragraph from The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock, a tract I recently helped unearth for a student's research on global warming: "One of the hardest tasks we face in life is to be the bearer of seriously bad news. . . . as a planetary doctor I have now to bring the worst of news. . . . We have driven the Earth to a crisis state from which it may never, on a human time scale, return to the lush and comfortable world we love and in which we grew up." No wonder Lovelock's book never moved from the new-arrivals library shelf. The student hadn't even mined the first chapter before putting the book down. I relegated Lovelock's book to the main stacks the next day, another skull within the catacombs of neglected readings.

The fiction shelf can always provide an escape hatch from Lovelock and the host of other doomsayers, except I always jump for silent joy when I see Heart of Darkness checked out instead of Love the One You're With, yet another mawkish chanceencounter novel involving an old flame. Anna Karenina, anyone? The reference desk doesn't always revolve around such dismal academic intelligence. Research assistance hits upon all sorts of little-known fun facts throughout the day. I can enter an unfamiliar database and fish out a prize answer for a patron in seconds flat, if they don't Google it first. I can tell them which state has the most bridges- it's Texas, but I've forgotten the number-or who won the Stanley Cup in 1984.

More than one billion people in about 70 countries around the world observe Daylight Savings Time, by the way.
But while Google and the wiki reduce my services to the same sorry fate as the milkman and the travel agent, I somehow feel a need to square the balance, however tainted the impulse.

Any text that floats across the reference transom I regard as potential fodder for my community of readers, academic or otherwise. Weeks ago, for example, a friend bought a new Honda Insight for $20,000. I came across this review in the U.K.'s Times Online days later and forwarded: "It's terrible. Biblically terrible. Possibly the worst new car money can buy. It's the first car I've ever considered crashing into a tree, on purpose, so I didn't have to drive it any more." An old colleague was thrilled to have accepted a new teaching post in Pittsburgh. The American Lung Association later issued a report that revealed Pittsburgh was the most polluted city in the country. Again I hit the send button. Another friend is selling his home in Virginia and moving his family to Texas. I didn't send him the story in the Washington Post that said most homeowners in the area were accepting far less than what they paid for their homes, mostly because foreclosures were dragging down prices throughout the region. He'll learn this soon enough; it's front-page news-literally.
I used to think students largely ignored librarians because most of us summon the age-old stereotype of the bun-headed diminutive with her index finger at her lips, scurrying between the bookshelves like a mother hen, shushing the children. Our obsession with peace and quiet-mine at least-probably isn't the reason why some of us are taking a back seat in the age of (too much) information.

Carl Jung once famously remarked that people cannot stand too much reality. Maybe Stephanie Meyer's vampire books are flying off our new-arrivals shelf for good reason.


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