Will Unwound #834: “The Golden Age of the Librarian”August 14, 2013
As a liberal arts major in my spare moments in life (waiting for the threesome in front of me to complete their agonizingly slow play; getting stuck on I 580 with its interminable construction;
digging ditches landscaping my new property) I play the golden age game. Give me a topic from the liberal arts and I’ll give you the golden age. Here are some examples:
American art – 1950s New York abstract expressionism (Pollack, DeKooning, Rothko)
American literature – 1920s (Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald)
American music – 1950′s West Coast Jazz (Mulligan, Kenton, Brubeck)
Baseball – 1950s New York City (Mantle, Mays, Snider)
Technology – Neolithic Age
Astronomy – Renaissance – (Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler)
Philosophy – BC Greece (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle)
Theology – Middle Ages (Aquinas)
U.S. Presidents – 1789 to 1825 (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe)
You get the idea. This is a game that keeps your mind active. It’s also a game that reveals your strengths and weaknesses as a liberal arts graduate.
The concept of the liberal arts was very big when I went to college. The idea was to learn a little bit about a lot of different subjects in order to become a well rounded person. This was one of the main reasons why you went to college, and it’s the main reason why I loved college. Where else could you dabble in so many different areas under the tutelage of first class minds?
Today we tend to treat higher education as more of a financial investment than an intellectual one, probably because higher education has become so expensive. A parent has to think long and hard about shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars so that the kids can become well rounded people at elite colleges and universities.
As a result, the golden age of the liberal arts education is over. It’s been superseded by the stern sounding acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). STEM is where the jobs are…the high paying jobs.
Of course if you were a true lover of the liberal arts you took just enough philosophy and theology to understand that long term happiness can never be based on money. In the golden age of liberal arts, poverty had a certain cache. It showed you were not a superficial person. You looked at a job not as a cash cow but as an opportunity to serve humanity.
By the middle of my senior year in college (1970), I was certain that the ideal job for the liberal arts major was librarianship. It met all the qualifications: dealt with the entire scope of human knowledge, served humanity, and paid poverty wages.
I was one of the lucky ones. I got into librarianship before its golden age ended. I believe the golden age of the librarian lasted until the early to mid 1990s, possibly even to the end of the millennium. I also believe that’s when the golden age of libraries began.
You’re confused? Don’t be. Prior to the whiz bang arrival of personal computing, the internet, and all things digital, the librarian reigned supreme as the holy gatekeeper to the divine realm of knowledge, wisdom, and information contained within the library. Not only did the librarian draw upon his/her own vast reservoir of the liberal arts, but the librarian’s tools (periodical indices, catalog records, and reference materials) were created and organized in such a way as to be patron unfriendly. They made the librarian indispensable.
Computer catalogs and Google changed everything. They are very patron friendly. All you have to do is string together a few keywords and presto the world of information is now yours. There are still librarians but they have become support staff to machines. In the old days, when you needed a poem by one of the romantics but could only remember a few lines (and they weren’t the first lines) you were at the mercy of the quality of the librarian’s liberal arts education. Today’s librarian doesn’t need a background in 19th century poetry at all. Today the librarian (or patron!) just types those lines into a little search box and voila the poem appears.
Think of the Bible. Before the Reformation in order to access the meaning of the Bible you needed a middleman – your local priest. After Luther, everyone could read and interpret the Bible according to their own individual whim, which is why Protestantism has fractionalized into literally thousands of different sects. It’s instructive to note that this cultural sea change occurred only after the printing press was invented and copies of the Bible became fairly widespread.
The same thing has happened today. The computer has changed the role of the librarian from shaman to facilitator. Everyone is now a librarian, which is why the golden age of libraries is just getting underway.