perspectives upon standing up

September 26, 2006

If it is true that there are two types of people, as Mark Oppenheimer claims in his important opinion piece  in the September 22nd issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, “those who were deeply saddened by Barbara Epstein’s death in June and those who had never heard of her,” then I suppose I must fall into the former camp. Oppenheimer’s article rings particularly true to me in a number of ways.  For the last three years my closest friend has worked at the NYRB, first under Mrs. Epstein and later Robert Silvers. Despite my friend ultimately having the intellectual upper hand, our almost daily, ongoing conversations have been assisted by evidence from certain articles published in the Review.  In the summer of 2003, following the NYRB Classics imprints, we thought it would be a good idea to read Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station.  It was my introduction to Edmund Wilson, and perhaps a turning point in my development, as I learned it was possible to discuss Marx and Engels from a journalistic or biographical point of view in addition to the ideological.  In college I had read the usual Marx and Engel’s essays a college kid reads, but was mistaken in attempts to bolster these readings with Marxian criticism of the Frankfurt School, such as Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment While this book might have been important to me as a young, flailing college student, I was left with many unanswered questions for Marxist cultural theory.  In the lunch area where I work, I recently put up a picture of Eleanor Marx, Karl’s youngest daughter in part because it reminds me of how much I prefer Wilson’s more personal version of Marx. But also it also serves as a symbol of how reading Wilson‘s To the Finland Station opened my mind to a plane of historical imagination, where I felt comfortable claiming knowledge based on my ability to recognize the power of individual personalities in the historical process.

The knowledge of knowledge is a scary one. Who wants to come off as a pedant, or know-it-all bore? Furthermore, it is impossible to know everything.  But we must not let this impossibility further encumber our ability to know anything at all.  We must take stands, recognizing their potential for err, and claim knowledge or else risk further obfuscation of the intellectual tradition.  The archivist or reference librarian is particularly well suited to help restore this type of action to the academic community as we are depended on not for our critical thinking, but our ability to at least grasp the popular versions of academic debates.  While I might not be able, nor would I want to tell a person every possible reading of a certain diary of David S. Edwards, I can tell a person that the David S. Edwards Papers contain first hand descriptions of Italian antiquities which may be important to a scholar interested in transatlantic romanticism.

Why is any of this necessary considering how simple it is to discover Edmund Wilson, Karl Marx or David S. Edwards simply looking them up in a library’s electronic catalog? Online catalogs are on the verge of exploding beyond the control of traditional librarian techniques.  The phenomenon of the unfortunately monikeredmashups” is going to stretch the OPAC until it breaks, after which it will never be put back together the same way.  It will then be doubly important for archivists and librarians in reference positions to make basic claims about their collection. I will addmy feeling that these so-called “mashups” are good for the OPAC, since they signify an end of (failed) attempts to make computers recreate card catalogs, and instead point to a future in which computers can be  employed within libraries in ways they are better suited for i.e. information distribution.  One can begin to feel somewhat weightless contemplating the electronic catalog of the future, and perhaps to academic types this whole trajectory appears cliche.  Borges offered as solution his idea that “The Library is unlimited and cyclical in his 1941 Ficciones. But what we must not lose sight of as archivists, is how our resources are used by a wide range of scholars.  We will continue to offer sources to sophisticated scholars who are experts in their fields, but rather than be intimidated or consigned to dealing only with experts as silent partners, we should feel comfortable even where we may only know an intellectual argument as a layperson.

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