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November 2005
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Christmas Past

We're having an astonishingly relaxed Christmas Eve.  Somehow we managed to get ahead of the schedule.  Everything is decorated, Lynn is finishing up her wrapping (I actually finished mine yesterday!), and it's not even noon.   Later today I'll start on the traditional Christmas spaghetti and meatballs, which I have been eagerly looking forward to for days.

My brother, Daniel, sent me a picture of the family from 1965.  That would be me in the middle...


Semi-Intelligent Design

Modern Europe and America have thus been divided, politically and ideologically, into three camps.  There are liberals... There are Marxists...  both are rationalistic, and both, in intention, are scientific and empirical.  But from the point of view of practical politics the division is sharp.

The third section of modern opinion, represented politically by Nazis and fascists, differs philosophically from the other two far more profoundly than they differ from each other.  It is anti-rational and anti-scientific. ... It emphasizes will, especially will to power; this it believes to be mainly concentrated in certain races and individuals, who therefore have a right to rule.

When Russell wrote those lines in his History, it was 1943, and he was living in the United States.  He believed that the US represented the great hope of rational, liberal thought ("liberal" in the philosophical tradition of Locke and Hume, of course, not in the narrow political sense in which it is currently used).  He was wrong.

The battle over Intelligent Design is profoundly about what knowledge is.  It isn't science, it's metaphysics.  The battle is about whether or not we believe that science, as it has been practiced over the last four hundred years, is a legitimate method for understanding the world, or if, in fact, it is dangerous because it may lead us to question metaphysical and religious truths.  To insert Intelligent Design into science classes, is to undermine the very notion of what scientific knowledge is.

As a metaphysical theory, it was pretty thoroughly debunked back in the 17th century after Leibniz, its last great proponent.  It is amusing to turn to Russell again, when, just before explicating Leibniz's arguments he says, "it is well to realise that modern theologians no longer rely on them."  When it is closely examined, it is such a lousy theory.  What intelligent designer would have created human bodies that are so frail, weak and subject to so many failures?  The frightening thing about intelligent design is what it reveals about the nature of the creator -- I'd rather believe it's some half-crazed crackpot  imp run amok than to think that an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful deity made such a botched job of it.   In order to make the theory of intelligent design internally consistent, you have to address the problem of evil, and you cannot do that without resorting to a clearly religious argument of some sort.  To proclaim that Intelligent Design is science is to reveal oneself to be intellectually dishonest or profoundly ignorant.

What I found most striking in Judge Jones' decision in the Pennsylvania case was his pointing out that the evidence clearly showed how the proponents had intentionally lied.  But I guess I shouldn't be surprised.  Why should someone who believes that science and rational thought are dangerous and even evil feel bound by normal conventions of truth and falsity?  If God requires a little deceit in order to move the flag of faith forward, why should any true believer hesitate?

For those who adhere to W's worldview, science is a tremendous threat.  It leads children to think for themselves, to examine evidence, to develop an argument along logical lines, and to go wherever the facts lead.  But that assumes that there are objective facts to discover.  And as our president's minions have pointed out, the "fact-based" world is outmoded.  What our president's partisans admire so much is his unshakeable will -- clear evidence of his right to rule.

Writing and Thinking

It's easy to imagine Terkel's warm, soothing voice asking the questions as the kid from Hibbing sits nervously in the studio.  Terkel's about my age in this clip from an interview he did with Dylan in 1963, and he's been carrying on these kinds of conversations for a couple of decades.  Dylan is in his early myth-making phase, and you can pick up the untruths -- that he saw Woody Guthrie play in California when he was ten, that he lived in Mexico for awhile before he went to New York.  He doesn't repeat the bit about playing piano in a whorehouse in Denver, which was always one of my favorites.

But you also see how quickly he responds to Studs, and how quickly he trusts him.  This ain't no journalist trying to get a quick spin on the latest folk-craze thing.  This is somebody who understands, and who he can talk to, and open up with some.  With the current interest in all things Dylan occasioned by Chronicles and the Scorcese documentary, it's a perfect little bit to find tucked in at the end of Granta 90.  Once again, I shake my head in awe and admiration -- if I was ever going to be a real editor, my role model would be Ian Jack.

Jack has made Granta the very best English-language literary magazine in the world.  During the Fadiman years, American Scholar came very close, but I'm sorry to say that with her forced departure, the Scholar has declined somewhat.  It's still very good, but there's been a slight and subtle shift in tone -- it used to be all about the writing.  It has come to be about the content.  But content is everywhere -- we're drowning in the stuff.  Excellent writing gets tougher to find all the time.

What Jack seems to be doing with Granta, and what Fadiman did with the American Scholar, is to place content in the service of the writing.  To be sure, the content is often thrillingly wonderful, and Granta has the added challenge of organizing issues thematically, which pushes the content forward a little bit more; but the essence of the magazines is that every sentence sparkles.  I read Foreign Affairs regularly too -- that's for content, and means slogging through some of the most godawful dull and uninspired prose that any college professor teaching upper-level poli sci ever had to wade through.

Working in the web world makes good writing difficult, because good writing takes time. And sloppy writing enables sloppy thinking. "Web 2.0" actually speaks to something specific and so it  makes sense to me -- "Library 2.0" is sloganeering that signifies very little. "Open access" has become a label that can be slung around wildly with each walrus, queen or fuzzy-headed caterpillar given it just the meaning that they want it to have, and ignoring all other nuances. And don't get me started on the violence being done to the language by my president.

Writing ought to be a way of challenging oneself.  The words ought to poke back at you, cause you to sit up straight and ask yourself -- is this really what I mean?  Does this sentence really makes sense following that one?  Does that word really signify what I'm trying to get across?  But it appears that many people think they just have to transcribe the noise that rattles between their ears.  And noise is most of what comes across.

Dictators and Tyrants

My president claims that his illegal wiretaps are essential to protecting the lives of Americans.  But he is responsible for protecting my liberty (remember Patrick Henry), and that is what he is relentless chipping away.  I don't know if we have faced, as a nation, as an experiment in democracy and self-government, such a critical moment as we face now that W has thrown down the gauntlet.  His pugnacious radio address yesterday made it very clear -- he believes that he is authorized to take any action that he feels is necessary in his war on terror.  He is not subject to legislative or judicial review. 

He says the program is reviewed every 45 days -- by him, his attorney general, and his lawyer.  Good grief.

The rumbling in congress is encouraging.  But the president's partisans are coming on strong as well.  The next few weeks will tell -- are we so craven as a nation that we will turn our back on the dreams of Franklin and Washington and Jefferson and Adams in search of some elusive illusion of security?  Tyrants and dictators always arise with the consent of those they govern.  We get the government that we deserve.

Office Party & Library 2.0

I was amused by what American Libraries chose to highlight in their mention of my talk at the Charleston Conference:

...T. Scott Plutchak, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham health sciences library, set the tone for the conference theme of "Things Are Seldom What They Seem" by declaring the imminent "end of libraries as we know them" as a good thing. "We have done a fabulous job of making it possible [for] people [to] get stuff without coming into the library," he noted, "but we have lost the connection with people by staying in the building." Plutchak said his library is involved in "going outside the building" by setting up liaisons with each academic medical department and offering the prize of an office party to any unit that adds the "ask-a-librarian" icon to its web page...

(SOURCE: Books and Serials Face an Uncertain but Exciting Future ,  SPECIAL NEWS REPORT : 25th Charleston Conference, By: G. M. E., American Libraries, 00029769, Dec2005, Vol. 36, Issue 11, p.p. 34-35, )

I love the idea of the office parties -- not that I can take any credit for it whatsoever.  Pat and her group came up with it last year when they were brainstorming promotions for Library Week.  The group that won that time was the perioperative cardiovascular nurses, and we have pictures of them grinning with delight when Pat & several of the others brought the cake & ice cream over to their lounge.  The nurses are all scrubbed up and gowned, ready to go if need be, and they were thrilled and gave tours of the brand new surgical suites and everyone had a great time.  And as I said to Pat later, "We don't want those folks to have to come to the library for heaven's sake.  They are right where they belong!"  And they love their library.

This past Monday, it was the graduate nursing faculty.  They'd asked us to come and talk about copyright issues (specifically, "what use can I make of copyrighted material in my online courses").  They'd won a party during National Medical Librarian's Month, so it was good timing.  Pat & Lisa & I stood outside the classroom where the meeting was going to take place, and gave them their treats as they came in.  It definitely establishes a different tone from the typical faculty meeting.

We're trying to have fun, of course, but there's a very serious intent behind all of this.  We're changing the way our community thinks about their library, and we're forging better relationships with the people we're committed to serving.  Our success depends on it.  So I'd recommend adding a couple of additional tools to the Library 2.0 armamentarium:  an ice cream scoop and a popcorn machine.

Librarian 5.0

I'd like to see just a little more imagination and a bit more historical perspective on the part of the Library 2.0 enthusiasts.  Certainly, making good use of the latest tools & gadgets & gizmos to do a better job of reaching out to our communities and providing better services is something we should all be doing -- but this isn't really anything new.

The move from closed stack libraries to open stacks was a tremendously radical move towards empowering library users.   So was the replacement of the book catalog by that marvel of human ingenuity, the card catalog.    I suspect that telephone reference was considered nervy and cutting-edge when it first appeared (and was probably fiercely resisted by reference librarians who feared that it would interfere with their ability to provide the level of service that they were accustomed to).

What strikes me about much of the Library 2.0 discussion is how library-centric rather than user-centric it is.  Ten years ago, when I first took this job, in one of my very first presentations to my new colleagues, I said,

Our job is not to build a better library.  Our job is figure out how to make the very best use of our particular skills, tools, talents and abilities to help the people in our community do a better job of getting and managing the information that they need.  Sometimes that means that we'll be doing things that everybody expects from libraries, but sometimes it means we'll be doing things that nobody ever associated with a library.  And sometimes it means we'll stop doing "library" things, because they're not really the things that our people need the most.

What strikes me about much of the writing on Library 2.0 is that the writers haven't yet quite clued in to the fact that the library itself is just a tool.  For centuries, ever since those ancient Sumerians started trying to figure out how to store the clay tablets from one harvest to the next so that they could report back to the king how many barrels of beer they'd brewed compared to last season, having a place to store the records -- a library -- and effectively managing it (with the latest technology available) has been central to how librarians served their communities.  The radical shift we are now facing is that, for the first time in human history, librarians need no longer be constrained and defined by the walls of the library.

We don't know yet if blogs & wikis are just this season's gopher & veronica, or will, like the broadsides of 16th century London, morph into something as powerful as the MSM of the late 20th century.  By all means, use all of the available tools, just don't get hung up on thinking that the tools provide the magic.  Librarians do.

I'm not concerned about the "future of libraries".  All this talk about continuing to be relevant bores me.  What I am deeply concerned about is the health of our communities, our educational institutions, and our culture.   To tend to that, we need radically aware librarians, deeply rooted in an understanding of the traditions of our long history, but with a clear focus on what we can provide to the communities we're a part of.   "Library 2.0" implies that Web 2.0 tools will create a radical paradigm shift in what libraries are.   But they're just tools.   I'm much more interested in Librarian 5.0 -- the librarian beyond walls.

Fun With Words

I've been laughing out loud while reading the July issue of Poetry (I'm a little backed up in my magazine reading, so I just got to this one.)  It's a special issue on humor, and starts out blazing with a hilarious piece by Andrew Hudgins.  Superb poets having this much fun with words is a wonderful antidote for so much grimness in the world.  Kay Ryan's description of going to the AWP conference was so brilliant that after I picked myself up off the floor and got my breath back I emailed Jake and ordered three of her books, just  to be supportive.

I've been a subscriber to Poetry off and on over the years, and when they received the Ruth Lilly bazillions a couple of years back, I subscribed again out of curiousity to see what they'd do.  To go overnight from a well-respected, penny-pinching little organization to the richest literary magazine the world has ever seen has to be a little mind-wrenching.  I think they've done a very good job.  They spent a good bit of time really thinking through their mission and what they could responsibly do with all of that money.  I'm sure there's been a lot of backroom infighting within the poetry community, and undoubtedly many embittered people who think things should have been done very differently, but, fortunately, I'm not a part of that world, so all I care about it whether or not the magazine is interesting.

Being released from worry about the viability of the magazine does seem to have injected a wonderful sense of play into the thing.  Could be that Wiman would've had that sensibility anyway, but certainly there's an energy around the enterprise that's new.    No whinging here about whether or not "poetry will survive"!  What a stupid thing to worry about.  How could poetry not survive?  Playing with their language is one of the essential things that human beings do.  What forms it takes, how it gets distributed through the culture, whether or not a particular society invests in it in any substantial way -- sure, all of these things are up for grabs, but they're really irrelevant to the bigger picture. 

It's similar to the worries of many librarians about whether or not librarianship will survive.  One confuses the future of a particular library or one's own  job with the future of the profession.  The notion that a society can be viable without librarians is nonsense.  This does not mean that any individual librarian working today is assured of a job.  Similarly, whether or not any particular magazine, writing program or publisher producing books of poetry stays in business says nothing about the role that poetry plays in the ongoing saga of human beings and their unceasingly awkward attempts towards achieving civilization.

Poets and librarians, carpenters and cooks, politicians and prostitutes -- the bedrock of culture.

Christmas Shopping

Lynn is a traditionalist.   Now that we're just a few weeks out, almost every evening after work she has stops to make as she gathers her gifts.  She spends hours fighting the traffic, going from store to store for the best deals, the perfect presents.  As a frequent recipient of the results of her hunting style I have to say that it seems to be a very successful approach.

I, on the other hand, took to online shopping just as soon as it was available.   I shop all year long without ever walking into a store.  I'll flip through the catalogs, I'll see something that I think Lynn or Marian might like, I'll order it and stash it in my closet.  When a gift-giving opportunity arises, I've generally got a good selection in there to draw from.

But with Christmas approaching this year, I needed to replenish the inventory.  Last Saturday I took several hours to go through the stack of catalogs that have accumulated.  Since I do a lot of shopping online, I'm on a lot of lists and, particularly in the last few weeks I'm getting at least eight or ten catalogs every day.  Every museum shop in the country that does mail order sends me their catalog, I think.   The high-end artsy catalogs (like Gump's in San Francisco, or Guild) have me on their lists.   I can always find something for the girls in Red Envelope or Coldwater Creek.    A couple of years ago I bought Lynn a brandy carafe of Irish crystal from Cash's -- now I get several Irish specialty catalogs.    Every time I buy something from one company, I end up on the mailing list of two or three other similar merchants (despite the fact that I always click the "no" boxes about sharing my name or putting me on their email lists).  That's okay, but of course no one ever takes me off their list, so I also continue to get the catalogs from those companies that I've never bought anything from and never will.

So I spent the afternoon whittling down the mountain of catalogs, making a list of every item that caught my eye as a possible gift for one of my recipients.    Then it's a matter of picking from the list for those things that'll make the best mix on Christmas morning.  And I'll order a few other things that I don't intend to give just yet, so that I can buildup the backup in the closet.

I'm just about done.  There are a couple of things that I will have to go out to an actual brick n' mortar store for, and I'm still dithering about one or two other items -- trying to decide which I really think she'll like the best.  (I'll just as likely end up getting both and save one for later).  That'll be the end of Christmas shopping for me until a few days before.  Then, on the 21st or 22nd probably, I'll take a day to go out to the malls.  I do this every year -- it's my holiday anthropology expedition.  By then, my shopping is all done, so I'm not stressed out trying to find those last few things on my list (although I generally am on the lookout for a few serendipitous finds), and I wander through the stores watching people, looking at the displays, listening to the music, thinking about Christmases past.  I'm not in a hurry, and have nothing in particular that I'm looking for, so I can be aimless and spontaneous.  I'm looking forward to it.

In the meantime, though, I'll stay away from the malls, avoid the traffic, and watch with satisfaction as the delivery guys show up with what I've chosen.