Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Signature Statements

My colleague, Lynne Thomas, special collections librarian at Northern Illinois University, had an interesting post on her blog the other day, that picks up a thread from Steven Bell's piece on the ACRLog on the question "What's Your Signature Statement." I'd like to continue that thread (also, check out the comments to Steven's post for other takes on his challenge).

Steven defines a signature statement in the same terms as a chef's signature dish, drawing his inspiration from the TV reality show "Hell's Kitchen." Steven writes:
Without going into great detail about Hell’s Kitchen just know that in the first episode each aspiring chef must prepare and present his or her signature dish - which Gordon Ramsey promptly trashes in the most humiliating fashion possible. Nearer to the end of the show the surviving two contestants usually prepare their signature dish for a panel of food experts in one of their final competitions. A chef’s signature dish, according to Ramsey, defines the chef. It sums up in a single presentation all their skills, and expresses their creativity and accumulated experience. The signature dish says “this is who I am”.
The challenge, from Steven, is this:

So my humble proposal is that academic librarians should develop their own signature statement that provides insight into the distinctive characteristics that define them as a librarian. To guide you, consider [Robert J.] Thomas’ definition: a phrase or sentiment that serves as a source of inspiration that guides both the heart and the mind.
So, what is my signature statement? Such a statement comes, I think, from two sources. The first source is from a series of exchanges between Faramir and Sam Gamgee in one of my favorite books (and movies), The Lord of the Rings. The exchange concerns "quality." Faramir, at one point in the story, is tempted to take the great ring of power from Frodo, but avoids the temptation and, instead, assists and counsels Frodo and Sam on their mission to destroy the ring. Sam, in response to Faramir's actions, says "you have shown your quality, sir - the very highest," to which Faramir responds: "The Shire must truly be a great realm, Master Gamgee, where gardeners are held in high honor."

The second source is from another of my favorite books, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. A few quotes from the book (not to minimize the lengthy and wonderful discussions of the book, but to give some flavor):

"But even though Quality cannot be defined, you know what Quality is!"

"Quality is not a thing. It is an event."

"Quality is what you see out of the corner of your eye. . ."

Those two sources argue more for a sentiment (Pirsig might argue with such a connection with Quality) as opposed to a statement. I have no statement that defines me as a librarian (or a human being). Rather, who I am and what I do is wrapped up, in some way, with Quality--something that is shown, something that is known, and yet something seen out of the corner of your eye, in a great realm, where gardeners are held in high honor. And maybe (to add another element from another of my favorite authors, with a slightly different twist) in that moment or understanding (or 'gardening'), we are surprised by joy.

1 comment:

Lynne Thomas said...

This makes sense given how much of the material that we handle each day is described as "rare," but the quality of rareness is difficult to specify on occasion...