Interesting Times

“May you live in interesting times.”

That is supposed to be a Chinese curse. It probably isn’t, but like that other apocryphal paradox we ascribe to the Chinese–the character for “crisis” comprising the ideograms for “danger” and “opportunity”–it has a nugget of truth that rewards reflection.

For we do live in interesting times, and that can feel like a curse. And we–at whatever level you understand “we,” from the human and non-human world to our particular corner of our profession–do stand at a point of crisis, the danger clearly visible, the opportunity less so, but surely still there.

In a presentation at the ALCTS 50th Anniversary Conference, Richard A. Lanham said, “You are in the right place at the right time with the right skills and talents. We need them–and the tranquil quiet in which you practice them–more than ever.”  (“The Two Markets: Libraries in an Attention Economy,” Library Resources & Technical Services 52:2 (2008): 3-11.)  This affirmation is the more heartening as it comes not from a fellow librarian but from a professor emeritus of English.

If you are like me, you respond with a mixture of gratitude and unease. We who are engaged in the discipline of cataloging know–I hope–that we are needed now more than ever. But unlike farmers, nurses, merchants, mechanics, teachers–and reference librarians–not self-evidently needed. We are deeper in the background than that, and our economic position depends on a degree of foresight on the part of financial decision-makers over whom we have no power, but at best a measure of influence; a degree of good will, of willingness to look beyond the immediate bottom line, that is often forthcoming but, as we have seen, sometimes not.

Did you notice Lanham’s mention of “the tranquil quiet in which you practice them”? How unexpected, how quaint almost, the notion of “tranquil quiet” in a culture that so often seems a seething stew of phone bank, video game, and the Rush Hour of Ten Thousand Hummers. Our own profession, wishing laudably and reasonably to engage with society and make our libraries welcoming places for all, sometimes forgets that some people–and some acts of reflection and creation–need space, silence, and the suspension of expectations. In this, as in other things, we are called to be countercultural.

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Author: R.A. Stewart

Librarian, poet, sometime musician, father, grandfather, codger; as of November 9, 2016, second-class citizen of a banana republic.

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