Thursday, February 16, 2017

Regarding Sherlock

A few of weeks ago, after the British Broadcasting Corporation’s second episode of Sherlock (Season Four) aired on American public television, critics of various shades took to social media. “The Lying Detective,” like “The Six Thatchers” before it, offered plenty of opportunities for critical arrows. Charles Prepolec, a Canadian of recent acquaintance and newly-minted Baker Street Irregular (the preeminent North American Sherlockian literary society), kept his arrows quivered while remarking on Facebook: “Have tackled the newest Sherlock episode a couple times now and still can't decide how I feel about it. That's probably not a good sign.” Good sign or not, I joined the fray and commented on his post: “Waiting to complete the story arc for this season before rendering any criticism, such as it might be. General sense to this point: Gatiss and Moffat are building toward something. I’m interested in what they’re building. But then, I’ll acknowledge my “big tent” inclusive bias. It comes with the job.”

I am not a practicing critic. My “big tent” perspective comes from being a curator at the University of Minnesota and steward to the world’s largest gathering of material related to Sherlock Holmes as a cultural icon. From such a vantage point, critic or not, allow me to expand my social media-induced shorthand analysis.

Sherlock Co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat were building toward something. What that “something” is, only they can say. I’ve not yet taken time to read or watch interviews with them or the cast in order to add additional data in support of my hypothesis. Instead, I took a little bit of time to go back and view the first episode of Season One, “A Study in Pink.” Like an amateur detective wannabe, or a Watson understudy, I reexamined the beginning of the Gatiss-Moffat narrative arc, looking, as it were, for clues. Holmes might scold me for such misguided methodology, conducted in a vacuum, and argue instead for an interrogation of principal suspects. For the moment, I prefer to play my own game, the musings of an admirer who enjoyed the entire series. If what I rediscovered in that first episode comes anywhere close to the truth, then I hope Gatiss and Moffat—should they ever stumble across these words—will be pleased; or at least mildly amused.

Partial inspiration for my hypothesis—that Sherlock is a superbly creative invention designed to encompass the entire world of Mr. Holmes, and in that embrace offer commentary on an extraordinary friendship (and friendship, generally)—comes from author Bonnie MacBird’s confession that she loves “Sherlock for exactly what it is—a very creative riff on canon, written and performed by some immensely talented guys….Those characters, those vulnerabilities, have been carefully constructed, consistently built throughout the series. It’s not the Canon, it’s a version of these characters which is consistent within the longer arc of the Sherlock series.[1] My premise includes not only Canon, but Apocrypha, parody, pastiche, fandom (broadly defined as running the spectrum from traditionalist to convention-attending cosplayer)—in short, anything having to do with Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson—in all media. Feel free to slap me back to reality, but data from “A Study in Pink” leads me in this direction.

What I found in this inaugural episode of Sherlock surprised me. I attended primarily to spoken clues, although visual clues abound. There is, for instance, an introductory panning camera shot of Baker Street that is a direct homage to Granada Television’s opening sequence in the Jeremy Brett series. Others more visually literate will have certainly spotted references throughout the series to other productions. In this instance, allow me to sprinkle in a few additional references to other visuals and episodes while concentrating on the libretto of this mesmerizing opera.

Secondary characters help frame this study in friendship, for that is the ultimate aim of Sherlock. Beyond the police tape, outside the crime scene, Sergeant Sally Donovan of the Metropolitan Police warns Watson (and us) in no uncertain terms: “Stay away from Sherlock Holmes.” Like the good doctor, we are unable to heed her warning and proceed to the investigation. Once inside the Holmesian perimeter, we receive a second admonition from Donovan’s superior, Detective Inspector Lestrade: “I’m breaking every rule letting you in here.”[2] What immediately follows this warning is, in essence, an existential call and response featuring Holmes and Lestrade that speaks to our longings as an audience. Holmes, in reply to Lestrade’s half-hearted rebuke of “letting you in here,” begins our litany: “Yes, because you need me,” to which we (as Lestrade) reply, “Yes, I do. God help me.” It is a collective confession and cry for assistance from someone, or something, beyond ourselves. We need Sherlock Holmes. But why?

As audience, we find ourselves in the roles of these perimeter players, but also, more closely, as Watson. It is Conan Doyle’s canonical invention taken to new heights. Once on the crime scene, we (as Watson) still require Lestrade’s permission to assist Holmes, which our Scotland Yarder readily grants. “Oh, do as he says. Help yourself.” The Detective Inspector gives us both marching orders and authorization. Our roles as onlookers to this episodic adventure are set. We should follow Sherlock’s dictates and yet enjoy ourselves a bit along the way. Or does Lestrade’s idiomatic phrase exhibit a double edge? Are we welcomed to take what we want, or do what we want without asking permission—“help yourself”—while at the same time directed toward introspection and self-care (a kind of care famously absent from Holmes’s life)? In an oblique and unconscious way, is Lestrade summoning the ancient Socratic dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living?” Confused by this existential double entendre we, like Watson, remain puzzled in our role. This puzzling, pondering, brooding will continue until the denouement of “The Final Problem” in the series’ fourth season.

Having drifted through the opening scenes of “A Study in Pink,” we still wonder how we fit into this relationship. What is the bond between us? It is a question that will dog us until series’ end. Our experience tells us that it is something more than simply being Sherlock’s flatmate, or audience. We are, after all, standing in the midst of a crime scene. But we remain confused. Watson, now psychosomatically crouched beside the dead body of a lady in pink, asks: “What am I doing here?” Holmes enigmatically replies: “Helping me make a point.” What point? It is another question we’ll add to the pile and ponder throughout the series. Watson thinks he’s helping pay the rent, but for Sherlock it is much more than that. “Yeah, well, this is more fun.” Flabbergasted, Watson replies: “Fun? There’s a woman lying dead.” Holmes prods us. “Perfectly sound analysis, but I was hoping you’d go deeper.”

It is this Sherlockian hope to go deeper that adds to my enjoyment of the series and intensifies my argument, found in clues from the first episode, that Sherlock is designed to explore the meaning of friendship while touching on the entire world—past and present—of Mr. Holmes and his followers. Characters large and small are freed from their canonical restraints, reflecting our own frantic expansion of Conan Doyle’s original players over the past 130 years through multiple genres transmitted across manifold channels.

Similarly, it is an expansion of our enthusiasms. Holmes and Watson are no longer the exclusive property of their creator or a select group of devotees, if they ever were. Conan Doyle’s cast now plays to (and with) a diverse audience. And it is an ever-widening cast. Whoever, or whatever our mysterious Holmesian third sibling, Eurus, represents in Sherlock’s final season, I venture to suggest that she symbolizes an evolution of audience, in a similar manner to the progressive work of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes (the oldest women’s Sherlockian literary society) vis-à-vis the Baker Street Irregulars (founded in 1934, who finally admitted women as members in 1991). Eurus is outnumbered by her brothers, two to one, but those days may be numbered (if not already here).

As an aside, we might contemplate the relationship of Sergeant Donovan and Philip Anderson, one-time member of the Metropolitan Police forensic unit (and sometime paramour with Donovan), as a mirror in which to view Sherlockian fandom. In this scenario, Donovan’s warning to stay away from Holmes can be viewed as an admonition by traditional Sherlockians to refrain from tinkering (or worse) with canon, characters, and Victorian settings. Anderson, equally antagonistic toward Holmes in earlier episodes, appears to have a change of heart which separates him from Donovan (and traditional devotees). Following Sherlock’s apparent death (dramatized at the end of the second season), and dismissed from his position at the Met (as we learn in the third season), Anderson confesses his belief to Lestrade that Holmes is still alive: “I believe in Sherlock Holmes.” Contrarily, Lestrade believes Holmes is dead, but together he and Anderson raise their coffee cups to “absent friends.” Sometime after Holmes’s death, Anderson forms a fan club, ‘The Empty Hearse,’ “so like-minded people could meet [and] discuss theories [of Holmes’s survival or death]....” Anderson, convinced that “Sherlock’s still out there,” is suddenly blown away by news that Holmes is alive and eventually collapses in a fit of hysteria following a conversation with Holmes in the flesh. It is a resurrection scene lifted straight from Holy Writ. Anderson’s hysteria (representing a newer fandom) does not sit well with a traditionalist’s view of canon. Such events are seen by old-school hobbyists as outside a fundamentalist Doylean norm and unworthy of Holmes.

Nevertheless, as Cheryll Fong and I argue in a soon-to-be published article in a special Sherlockian issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, we are living on the outer edges of a Holmesian “Big Bang” that began in 1887 with the publication of the first Sherlockian adventure, A Study in Scarlet. There is a new normal that is both canonical and extra-canonical. Sherlock, as with its American counterpart, Elementary (and an ever growing list of fan fiction found in online platforms such as Archive of Our Own) are not explosions in Holmesian space, but expansions of that space. Such an expansion takes place in Sherlock.  Season One’s “A Study in Pink” may be closest to canon, Season Four’s “The Final Problem” farthest away. Canonical or not, it may not matter. Like Watson, we are liberated from our past, forget our cane, spring from the table, and sprint through the streets of London in pursuit of our quarry.

And yet, there’s always someone who returns our mislaid walking stick and in the process reminds us that we were traumatized. Holmes and Watson are no exception; they both suffered in earlier times—Holmes with his Redbeard, Watson his Afghanistan. Watson’s overcoming—or at least managing—his post-traumatic stress disorder helps us recall that this is a friendship in process. It is a fraught relationship in competition or conflict with previous bonds, on both sides. (Witness those Best Man antics displayed by our dynamic duo in “The Sign of Three.”) Those with previously established relations play their part and then, with few exceptions, move off stage. Mike Stamford, for example, is “an old friend,” but once a new flat is secured he moves into the shadows. John’s girlfriend, Sarah, in “The Blind Banker” endures a near-death experience, but disappears from his life. Holmes sarcastically describes Donovan as an “old friend” while she addresses him as “freak.” Donovan, puzzling over who Watson really is, concludes that he is not Sherlock’s friend. “He doesn’t have friends. So who are you?” Watson, himself unsure, replies “I’m…I’m nobody. I just met him.” John is more than a nobody, but both he and Sherlock struggle with the meaning of friendship throughout the series.

Those friendships orbiting closer to our champions are similarly more complex, if not always detailed in full over the episodes. Watson is estranged from his drinking, divorcing sister, Harriet (aka Harry). “Harry and me don’t get on, never have.” A reclusive and formative friend, Major Sholto, appears at Watson’s wedding, is surreptitiously stabbed by an avenging photographer, and ultimately saved by an appeal to his better nature. Irene Adler, “The Woman,” is secretly rescued by Sherlock despite her dominatrix tendencies. To both Holmes and Watson, Mrs. Hudson is “your landlady, dear, not your housekeeper.” (We know better, especially after she pops out of her Aston Martin in “The Lying Detective.”) Holmes’s skull on the mantel of 221B is a “friend of mine,” but Mrs. Hudson later removes it. John thinks: “So I’m basically filling in for your skull?” Sherlock assures him: “Relax, you’re doing fine.” In each instance we glimpse clues to the meaning of friendship, while wondering if we’re really “doing fine.”

Wrapped in this wondering are those thorniest of bonds: Molly, Mary Morstan, Moriarty, and Mycroft; the “four Ms.” Each character could be the subject of a separate essay, but for the moment let us return to “A Study in Pink” and concentrate on perhaps the most conflicted relationship: the one that exists between the Holmes brothers.

In his initial encounter with Mycroft, Watson engages in a dialogue with this mysterious personage that brings together many of our meditations on friendship, roles, and existential meaning (and our own attraction to Holmes):

MH: You don’t seem very afraid.
JW: You don’t seem very frightening.
MH: Ah, yes. The bravery of the soldier. Bravery is by far the kindest word for stupidity, don’t you think? What is your connection to Sherlock Holmes?
JW: I don’t have one. I barely know him. I met him...yesterday.
MH: Mmm, and since yesterday you’ve moved in with him and now you’re solving crimes together. Might we expect a happy announcement by the end of the week?
JW: Who are you?
MH: An interested party.
JW: Interested in Sherlock? Why? I’m guessing you’re not friends.
MH: You’ve met him. How many ‘friends’ do you imagine he has? I am the closest thing to a friend that Sherlock Holmes is capable of having.
JW: And what’s that?
MH: An enemy.
JW: An enemy?
MH: In his mind, certainly. If you were to ask him, he’d probably say his arch-enemy. He does love to be dramatic.

Later in the encounter, Mycroft observes: “You don’t seem the kind to make friends easily.” John doesn’t answer the question. Mycroft—undeterred and aware of the Afghanistan-induced stress—addresses John’s physical and mental states by asking to inspect Watson’s hand. Reluctantly, John agrees to the examination. (A similarly revealing examination takes place later, as Watson presents his face to Magnusson in “His Last Vow.”) Mycroft continues: “I imagine people have already warned you to stay away from him, but I can see from your left hand that’s not going to happen.” Watson’s hand (and by extension, his growing trust in Holmes) remains unshaken. In a roundabout way, Mycroft is calling John back to action and intentionally (or not) bringing our duo closer together. “Most people blunder round this city, and all they see are streets and shops and cars. When you walk with Sherlock Holmes, you see the battlefield. You’ve seen it already, haven’t you?” Watson, still fixated on Mycroft’s examination of his hand, is slow to get the point. The elder brother pronounces his diagnosis and issues a call to arms. “You’re not haunted by the war, Doctor miss it. Welcome back….Time to choose a side….”

It is a welcome and challenge that invites a continual search for role and meaning in life. In sometimes minor, yet fundamentally meaningful ways these encounters between Sherlockian characters point to an exploration into the meaning of friendship. Watson makes a pass at Mycroft’s assistant, a Bondian “Miss Moneypenny” character operating under the alias of Anthea, only to be turned away.  Over dinner, while keeping an eye on 22 Northumberland Street, Holmes and Watson explore their sexuality. Watson continues to battle his analyst, yet it is she who uncovers his true identity: “John, you’re a soldier.” It is Watson retrieving his pistol in the opening episode and wrestling with the moral implications of using a similar firearm in “The Final Problem.” It is Holmes, wondering why a stillborn infant, dead for fourteen years, still matters to her mother. “That was ages ago. Why would she still be upset?” It is Watson, offering the last words or thoughts of a murder victim, “Please, God, let me live,” while being chided by Holmes to “use your imagination,” to which Watson sharply replies, “I don’t have to.” It is Donovan chastising us when Holmes exits a scene. “I told you, he does that. He bloody left again. We’re wasting our time!...Does it matter? Does any of it? He’s just a lunatic and he’ll always let you down. And you’re wasting your time. All our time.” It is an examination of our intellect and how we use it. “Dear God, what is it like in your funny little brains. It must be so boring.” It is the cabbie, gun in hand, asking Holmes “You don’t wanna phone a friend?” It is Holmes, in reply, observing that the cabbie “didn’t just kill four people because you’re bitter. Bitterness is a paralytic. Love is a much more vicious motivator.” It is an exercise, like the choice of pill-laden bottles, of free will. It is an exploration of what it means to be human.    

In the beginning it was John joining Sherlock in the adventure. “I said ‘dangerous,’ and here you are.” Ever mystified, Watson still wonders: “That’s how you get your kicks, isn’t it? You risk your life to prove you’re clever.” Holmes replies: “Why would I do that?” to which Watson answers, “Because you’re an idiot.”

But we know Holmes is not an idiot. In the end, it is Sherlock who joins John in the ranks of soldiers. “Into battle,” a phrase uttered by Holmes as he prepares to dress for John’s wedding, marks this transition. Likewise, the frontline watchword, “Vatican cameos,” alerts our friends to impending danger. In the midst of their ongoing battles—as might be the way of soldiers—Watson asks Lestrade an existential question. “So why do you put up with him?” In reply, the inspector answers, “Because I’m desperate, that’s why. And because Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and I think one day, if we’re very, very lucky, he might even be a good one.” Brother Mycroft offers a final word. “Interesting, that soldier fellow. He could be the making of my brother…or make him worse than ever.” Happily for us, it is the making of a remarkable friendship, worth pondering for a lifetime.

[2] My thanks go to Ariane DeVere aka Callie Sullivan for creating the transcript of this (and other) Sherlock episodes. The transcript for “A Study in Pink” may be found at In addition, the BBC recently released scripts to Season One:

Friday, July 29, 2016

Stew Pot of the Soul: Some Professional, Political, and Personal Reflections

Not long ago, while attending the annual Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) annual conference,[1] a professional gathering of folks concerned with those rare or special marvels found in many libraries or archives, I found myself posting this short online note to Twitter:

A professional stew simmering in my soul, made w/ ingredients from Suarez, @wynkenhimself, @mchris4duke, Light. What will result? 

My shorthand ingredient list referred to past and present talks or writings given by professional colleagues Michael Suarez, Sarah Werner, Chris Bourg, and Michelle Light.[2] Their thoughts, and others, distress my mind. Bourg, ever alert and timely on social media, replied to my post: “I’ll be watching!”

Bourg, Light, Suarez, and Werner entered my intellectual/professional/spiritual geography over the last few years. My tweeted reference about them was, in some ways, unintentional. I could have easily mentioned other names. Yet, for whatever reason, they collectively triggered something in my mind, something I’ve not been able to shake or dismiss. On the surface, it might appear they are talking about different things—user fees and access, digital surrogates, diversity, professional standing. Look carefully below the surface, however, and what I saw were conjoined currents of concern regarding civil rights, social justice, diversity, and equity. In short, what Bourg, Light, Suarez, and Werner provide—random though it may seem—is a way to navigate this region of my personal and professional topography. Together, they give me thoughts and a vocabulary for what it means to be fully human, or to seek after such humanity, while working as an archivist, curator, or librarian in American higher education.  

Here then, in answer to my tweeted question (and for those ever watchful among us), is a contemplative—and perhaps cathartic—meditation on this simmering stew of the soul. Part imprecation, lament, introspection, and supplication, these words endeavor to make professional sense in an increasingly senseless world.
* * * * *
The Biltmore, Coral Gables, Florida. May I accuse you of triggering my occupational discontent? I find your opulence disconcerting. You’re photogenic from every perspective. God knows, I revel in your architecture, your status as an historic landmark, late-night swims in your pool, your elegant service. Never, in over thirty years of employment, have I stayed at a place like you. Slippers by my bed, chocolate near my pillow. You really outdo yourself. Your luxury—Frette robes and plush Bamboo Orchid towels—maddens me even as I slip into your European feather bedding topped with 340-thread-count Egyptian cotton duvet covers. What am I doing here?

I don’t have far to look beyond your manicured landscapes, brightly painted walls, and hidden courtyards to find a different reality, one filled with hunger, homelessness, and illiteracy. According to a recent study, 306,330 people in Miami-Dade county—about twelve percent (including children)—are “food insecure.”[3] In South Florida (Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties) 280,630 children (almost 23 percent) go to bed hungry.[4] The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust’s annual “Point-in-Time” census showed a total of 4,235 sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals.[5] In 2003, 52 percent of Miami-Dade’s population lacked basic prose literary skills.[6] In two years, between 2010 and 2012, Miami-Dade’s population—64 percent of which is Hispanic or Latino—increased by almost 95,000 people, mainly due to migration. A little over half of the county’s residents are foreign-born. Nearly 23 percent of Miami-Dade’s Black, African American, Hispanic, or Latino residents don’t have a high school diploma compared to about 5 percent White non-Hispanics.[7] The Census Bureau tells me “that more than one in six Floridians lives in poverty” and that the state ranks 16th in the nation for children living in poverty, almost a fourth of the childhood population.[8] It would not be difficult for me to find similar numbers in these categories for my hometown. What am I doing here?

I don’t want to find any more numbers. Professionally speaking, I’m good at finding numbers—we’re good, as librarians, at finding numbers—but this is more than a numbers game. This is a game for much higher stakes. In the time I’ve piddled around thinking about this little piece of writing we’ve witnessed horrors in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas, Nice, Baton Rouge, again. Chicago, home to the American Library Association and the Society of American Archivists, recorded seventy homicides in June 2016.[9] We’re talking about mind, body, and soul. We’re talking about the very essence of our being: as individuals, professionals, citizens. What am I doing here?

And yet, the numbers—and the money involved—pull me back, demanding further reflection. I could point a reproachful finger toward my professional association, habitually securing, as they seem to do, plush surroundings for our annual gatherings. It is mildly exasperating—a feeling too easily sloughed off—explaining to my business office, after submitting travel reimbursement forms, why lodging costs are higher than the rate allowed by the Federal government (the baseline we use for reimbursement). We should be about the people’s business, conscious of how we spend public monies (even if some—or most—of our support comes from gift or private funds). Professional norms and expectations conspire against frugal sensibilities. With nary a twinge of guilt, I agree to reimbursement. What am I doing here?

But reimbursement for our professional pleasures (um, development) is perhaps the last and least of our worries. Long before, yet still in conference, we blanketed ourselves in wealth and privilege. Consider, for argument’s sake, an annual conference event we innocently name a showcase. This year’s event featured forty dealers. Let’s assume each dealer offered forty items to show, at $1,000 per item. In that luxurious long Biltmore room—assuming those numbers are close to accurate—we enjoyed treasures conservatively valued at $1.6 million.  How many of us did the math as we leisurely strolled, wine and cheese in hand, among the tables? How many of us considered our privileged position as we perused rare volumes or exquisite maps? What are we doing here?

Or consider the overall wealth represented by our individual earnings as we convened in Coral Gables. It’s an easy calculation, given the event’s cap at four hundred souls: 400 multiplied by $56,880 or $27.35/hour (2015 median pay for librarians according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) equals $22.752 million. I find it hard to complain about what I make when the annual household income worldwide is around $10,000 and the median per capita household income is around $3,000. In Miami-Dade county 2012 per capita personal income was $38,860 and median household income was $41,400.[10] Miami-Dade’s median hourly wage in 2012 for people working in education, training, and libraries equaled $21.37.[11] Is it possible to remember or consider our privileged economic position even as we complain about our non-existent or meager increases in salaries? What are we doing here? 

Now, throw into this stew other disquietudes offered by Light and Werner.[12], [13] Two years ago, Light invited us to consider the marketplace of ideas as it relates to our digitized content and higher education’s mission: “to disseminate knowledge, encourage appreciation of our cultural heritage, and inspire creativity.” She contended that “making public domain material freely available is consistent with this mission” and also “consistent with our professional values that emphasize access.” Our responsibility as librarians is to promote “the public good,” not treat “our content as goods we control in the marketplace.” She argued “that we improve our society by increasing the distribution of our heritage, by making it more visible and available for inclusion in public discourse…. Widespread visibility of our content would make for a better, not a worse, world.” To this end, Light rewrote her institutional permission policies and eliminated use fees. She ended her talk with three probing questions:
  • What values do you want your institution to represent?
  • What role should your institution have in the marketplace for historical content? 
  •  How do you want to help, or hinder, the progress of our culture?
Light asks me to freely give away much of the content under my stewardship—some of it acquired and preserved at great cost—in order to achieve a greater good. What is this greater good? Our public domain materials, as well as other materials for which we own rights, need to be forcibly interjected into, and inform, our public discourse. Not to do so hinders cultural progress and degrades our world. What public conversation(s) do we engage, and how? John Overholt[14] recently offered this comment on Twitter, as if in confirmation: “If your collections are a treasure-hoard you hide and guard from users, You. Are. No. Librarian. You don't know the meaning of the word.” Who am I? What am I doing here?

Werner, in a more recent presentation, pushed us further as she looked “for a radically open digital landscape.” She saw evidence of “a potentially radical way” in the manner institutions are opening physical collections to novice scholars and younger students, increasing online access to digital facsimiles, and engaging audiences proactively. “It’s a shift from modes of limited access, expert authority, and control to ones of openness and sharing.” At the same time, Werner chided us on the care, keeping, and use of our physical items while enumerating places, permissions, policies, and procedures that intimidate the very people we wish to serve. She concluded by observing that “special collections libraries are not like libraries that most people use, for reasons that are very good but also have the effect of sending the message that THEY ARE NOT FOR YOU (emphasis hers).” What are we doing here?

Werner saw much the same on the digital landscape. Theoretically, she speculated that this space should be “more welcoming, navigable, [and] open” than its physical counterpart. “You don’t need to be an expert, you don’t need anyone’s permission to enter, no one needs to know what you’re looking at, all that information is there for your use.” In reality, she found the scenery very different. It is a fragmented, haphazard, nightmarish panorama, difficult to navigate or comprehend. Should this surprise us, given fiscal inequalities, political realities, and the “corporatization” of higher education? “Images are hard to find, the same canonical works are digitized repeatedly, little attempt is made to provide context or to educate users on what the images are, and licensing restricts their uses.” “The radical potential of digital tools for special collections,” Werner asserts, “is they let everyone use rare books and manuscripts. They let everyone read them and destroy them and remake them and carry them into the future. We haven’t reached that radical openness yet.” Destroying and remaking are powerful, existential, elemental actions. Werner, echoing Light, pleads for us to let “go of the need to own the access to and uses of our images.” How do I let go? Can I think and act radically? What are we doing here?

On top of this, throw a continuous Bourgean mash of contemplative ferality, comments, ideas, and provocations into my simmering pot.[15] Here, I am willingly unsettled, finding (and prodded) toward social justice in the interweaving of personal, professional, and political concerns. For Bourg “the personal is political…the personal is professional and vice-versa…personal and political events tend to find their way into my work.” Unapologetic in this, she pushes me toward a conditional proposition: “If we want to do work that contributes to a fuller, richer, more varied understanding of our world, then we need inclusive and diverse teams collaborating on that work. Full stop.” How do we do this? Is it possible for the conditional to become unconditional? She also proclaims “that libraries (and archives) matter now more than ever not just because of google and technology; but also because of the very real and urgent social and human problems and challenges facing our nation and our world.” We share many of the same questions and concerns, from different (white) perspectives: Bourg, self-described as cis woman, butch, queer; me, self-described as cis man, straight, ally. I take her questions seriously and make them my own. “What does it mean—what could it mean—to be doing the work we do at a time like this?”

In the context of a digital world, Bourg believes that libraries and technology “can be forces for social good in this world….BUT only when intentional, critical, deeply value-laden (NOT neutral) choices are made in how we define, develop, and deliver the set of things we call Digital Libraries.” The same might be said for analog counterparts. What are our intentions? Who is part of this conversation? Who makes the choices? Is consensus possible on the “deeply value-laden?” As I write this, a reminder pops up on social media as yet another black man is shot by police in North Miami: “Librarians are not neutral, librarianship is not a neutral profession, libraries are not neutral spaces, and black lives fucking matter.” How does non-neutrality jibe with a professional code of ethics that dictates that we “not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions” and that “we distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties?”[16]What, for heaven’s sake, are we doing here?

Bourg’s vision includes “the notion that our libraries ought to provide safe, interdisciplinary, inclusive, ecumenical gathering spaces—physical and virtual—where community members have access to scholarly resources and to experts to support their research and learning goals and their personal growth and well-being.” A greater goal is to “help us make sense of the world around us. I see libraries, digital and physical, as platforms for equipping all of us to be more informed global citizens, able to participate effectively in the public sphere.” Her sense of urgency is palpable. Given our current state of affairs, this requires “all of us to participate at our fullest capacities—together.”

I am drawn to Bourg’s notion of ecumenical space as a place for dialogue. In this age of fear and primal screams do we still possess the art of dialogue? Or is the library a place to learn, to reclaim this art? Here I’ll embrace one of Bourg’s favorite quotations from bell hooks in her book Teaching to Transgress

To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as teachers, scholars and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences.[17]

Bourg concludes: “That notion of dialogue as education and the idea that authentic, messy, hard, critical conversations can break down barriers and create spaces for empathy and opportunities for us to experience our shared humanity is what has motivated most of my career in higher education and in libraries….” Can we handle authentic, messy and hard? Are we really interested in breaking down barriers and creating new spaces? Am I equally motivated? What are we doing here?

Finally, consider those spiritual longings and discomforts occasioned by Suarez in remarks offered a year ago.[18] He led with a quotation from de Tocqueville: “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.” Suarez bids us recognize those who went before, to see their creativity, and claim our citizenship in an [historic or academic] continuum, however noble or ignoble. The library, he argued, asks us profound questions about our humanity and endeavors. I am a student of the past, yet I feel darkness closing in. Did I claim citizenship in an historical or academic continuum as Philando Castile lay dying? Did I seek answers to profound questions from library stacks while Dallas police were assassinated?

At the same time, Suarez offered hope (or at least challenge) in how we think of time, space, and station. We were asked to change how we view time; to alter our notion of time from the tick-tock consuming nature of chronos (χρόνος) to the due season or opportune moment—imbued with the eternal or holy—of kairos (καιρός). In the same way, we should consider our steps into the stacks, vaults, classrooms, or galleries as hallowed. To be where we are, to do what we do, to walk where we walk is to be on a pilgrimage—a bibliophilic Camino de Santiago—where we no longer walk in darkness. “The library is a sacred place because it is...where I go to situate my humanity.” Can we understand or comprehend the sacred in a secular world? How many of us think of our places of employment—our libraries and archives—as sacred space? Did I go to a library to situate my humanity when forty-nine people were murdered in Orlando or when Alton Sterling was shot? What am I doing here?

Lastly, we were asked to claim our high station, not only in the academy, but in the world. As an aid to this task, Suarez offered seven pieces of practical wisdom—phronesis (φρόνησις)—to help us attain this status. His first piece of advice, to publish, prompted me to write this essay. Many other pieces of his counsel are woven into thoughts and questions peppering these paragraphs. Suarez, for his last piece of prudent mindfulness, urged me to “advocate for the public importance of what we do; it is nothing less than essential for the long-term survival and flourishing of humanity. If we don’t do that we only have ourselves to blame.” In memoriam to these victims, and in the name of other unfathomable horrors past, present, and future, do I enact sacred rituals in consecrated library space, seeking to engage others in the difficult work of reconciliation and restoration? What do those rituals look like? What should I be doing here? What more will result?

My stew pot of the soul—supplied with ingredients by Light, Werner, Bourg, Suarez, and others—still simmers. Questions remain. Yet my path toward whatever banquet or sustenance such a stew might offer—still veiled in self-doubt and hesitancy—seems clearer. As a pilgrimage, it is time to take next steps, with greater intentionality and engagement: to cultivate deeper understandings, build bridges, give my stuff away, seek “extramural consecration,” attend to communities of makers, uncover human presence, find moments of “unselving” and radical decentering,” craft “a place where transformative moments happen,” and conspire to create “the possibility for wonder.” In doing justly, in loving mercy, in walking humbly, wisdom tells me lives will be changed for the good, forever. This is what I’m doing here.

[1] RBMS is a professional organization, or membership section, of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), which in turn is a division of the American Library Association (ALA).
[2] Respectively: (Suarez) Director of Rare Book School, Professor of English, University Professor, and Honorary Curator of Special Collections at the University of Virginia; (Werner) Self-described “book historian, library enthusiast, digital tools explorer; (Bourg) Director of Libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and self-described as a “sociologist by training, and not a real librarian” (or, as she describes herself elsewhere, a “feral” librarian; (Light) Director of Special Collections at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Fellow of the Society of American Archivists.
[5] “Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust reports homelessness is down slightly in Miami-Dade County.”
[6] National Center for Education Statistics.
[7] Ibid, page 6.
[8] Florida Department of State, Division of Library and Information Services. “Strengthening Libraries and Services. Florida’s Library Services and Technology Act Plan 2013 – 2017.”, page 6.
[9] Chicago Tribune. Chicago Homicides.
[10] Miami-Dade County. Dept. of Regulatory and Economic Resources, Economic Analysis and Policy. “Miami-Dade County Economic & Demographic Profile 2014.”; page 5.
[11] Ibid, page 12.
[12] Michelle Light, “Controlling Goods or Promoting the Public Good: Choices for Special Collections in the Marketplace.” 2014.
[13] Sarah Werner, “Looking for a Radically Open Digital Landscape.” 2016.
[14] Curator of Early Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton Library, Harvard University, and current chair of RBMS.
[15] Chris Bourg. My quotations are from two of her posts: “Digital Library Matters: DLF Liberal Arts College Pre-conference”; “Librarianing to Transgress: Closing Keynote ACRL OR/WA 2014.”
[16] Code of Ethics of the American Library Association.
[17] bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. (New York: Routledge, 1994), 130.
[18] Michael Suarez, “Historical Scholarship 2.0: The Way We (Could) Live Now.” All quotations or paraphrases are from his talk.  

My thanks to those who read earlier drafts of this essay and offered comments, suggestions, and encouragement.