I started this post thinking I would use a well-worn quote from George Bernard Shaw’s “Maxims for Revolutionists” (found within his Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy (Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co., 1903, page 230): “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” But the quote has been so abused and misconstrued—with teachers unjustly bearing the brunt of the criticism—that I settled on this quote from Mayo (although its origin is perhaps even more clouded in mystery) that gets to the heart of this week’s reflection: we must always be a student. The day we think we know it all is the day we’re done—finished, kaput—as a professional. Hubris is deadly. Wisdom comes cloaked in humility.
If we’re fortunate in successfully navigating our way through even one small portion of the continuum of knowing—from information to knowledge to understanding and, finally, wisdom—without an “Icarus moment,” then perhaps at the end of a day (or a career) others might pronounce our work good, our learning sound. Ultimately, it is not for us to decide the quality of our own work, no matter how well we think of ourselves or our efforts.
Early in my career I thought it would be a good idea to weed the library collection. More than a few of the books were outdated, my dean—anticipating an upcoming accreditation visit—also thought it was a good idea, and the professional literature provided plenty of guidance. And so, with the proper criteria established, our small staff began to weed. It was more than we bargained for and as we got deeper and deeper into the project it became clear that I had not thought through the whole process, regardless of how well the literature guided me. I forgot to factor in human aspects such as fatigue and “buy-in.” My staff nearly mutinied. At the start I thought I knew it all. Midway through, I knew better. We collectively took a time out, mapped a new course, and completed the project. It took a little longer to mend fences with my staff. At least one member quit, distressed—justifiably so—by what I put her through.
Earlier this week, at the tail end of a meeting, the discussion moved to the recent passing of the American writer Gore Vidal. Knowing that one of our number was a Vidal collector, I watched and listened in amazement as he shared his passion for the writer: outlined his biography; commented on his historical fiction, essays, and other writings; contextualized his life within contemporary society, etc. It was a virtuoso performance offered without condescension from a deep well of lifelong reading and appreciation. At its conclusion I wanted to wrap my hands around a collection of Vidal essays and share in the excitement. I wanted to learn more.
Each day should be like that. There is always more to study and learn. One might counter such desire with a cliché: “So many books, so little time.” Or one might take a biblical route: “Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” I’ll put these sentiments aside in favor of those who, like the patient in the beginning quote, will benefit from the expanding expertise and experience of the librarian or archivist who serves them. The focus should be on those served and not the server. What we as professionals get out of the process is an added benefit to ourselves and our employer—the ability (and the responsibility) to teach others what we’ve learned along the way and to make our own workplace more vibrant.