Thursday, September 27, 2012

30th Year Reflections/17: Weight Limits

“It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” — Indiana Jones

I went to bed sore and I woke up sore. It has been one of those weeks. And it got me to thinking about all the material I’ve moved over my career: whole libraries and archives (starting with an architecture library when I was in graduate school) and collections by the truck load. After a while all that physical activity takes a toll, no matter how hard you try to use your legs and “lift carefully.” I’m sure many of us have seen the following in job postings/descriptions: “Must be able to regularly lift up to 40 pounds.” I’m fairly certain that every once in a while I’ve seen a fifty pound requirement for an archival or library position, but that is about as high as it goes; that is our professional outer limit. (I’ve lifted heavier bags of cement or sand, but that’s another story for a different time.)

Of course some of us don’t want to lift anything, or don’t have to. Here I’ll admit to a bit of professional prejudice: I’m not particularly fond of folks who don’t have to lift anything for a living. In my mind these folks are wimps. They need to have some skin in the game to truly qualify as a professional. Now some of these people might counter that they’re just smarter than the rest of us, that they’re on a higher plain of existence, that in the world of higher education or the profession they were born to be administrators and not worker bees. They are queen of the hive. There is no need to worry about the heavy lifting. They have people to do that for them.

Which was exactly the response I received a long time ago…at a conference far, far away…from a colleague of mine. I was attending a meeting on the East coast, on the campus of one of our earliest and most elite institutions of higher learning. In the middle of the afternoon we were at a transition point; the tables and chairs in the room needed to be reconfigured for the next event. I dove right in, in my Midwestern way, and started moving some furniture about when I was halted in my tracks by a member of the host staff. She looked down her nose at me and said “you don’t need to worry about doing anything. We have people for that.” And, indeed, they did. Before too long a squadron of laborers entered the room, dressed in coveralls and work clothes, and finished the work that I and others had started. It was at that moment I realized that some of my colleagues lived in a different world than I did. I could never enjoy their world, being waited on hand and foot by underlings. It was not the world I grew up in or one I enjoyed.

There is a value to getting your hands dirty and I rejoice every time I see one of my colleagues laboring away at another pile of boxes; it has been one of the best ways for me to engage with a collection and to start to know it intimately. I’m not content to wait until some minion has done all the dirty work. I want to dive in right away.

Granted, this egalitarian eagerness has come at a cost. I have four compressed discs, occasional lower back spasms, and what has been diagnosed as degenerative disc disease. I have bad mornings and stressed evenings. But I wouldn’t give it up for the world. It is my badge of honor, a sign that I’ve been in the trenches hustling for that next collection or teaching three sessions straight without a rest and eager for more.

One of my doctors once told me that I could throw my back into spasm by coughing or sneezing (I have) or picking up a tissue from the floor (I haven’t). It is all in the movement. I’d like to think that most of mine have been both careful and graceful.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

30th Year Reflections/16: Gone Fishing

“Gone fishing” — a time-honored sign found in shop windows when the proprietor is absent and unavailable to conduct business

At the moment I’m doing exactly what the sign says…or at least for a portion of the week. Since Sunday I have been in the north woods of Minnesota enjoying a week of vacation I was unable to schedule during the summer months—and getting some fishing in when the weather allows. Yesterday we pulled two four-pound northern pike into the boat. The filets are now in the freezer.

Idiomatic phrases intrigue me. Some, like the example above, can have multiple meanings. In this case it might also refer “to someone who is completely unaware of all that is going on in his or her immediate surroundings. The person described in this manner has checked out from reality and may be daydreaming or just simply ignorant of the people and things in the vicinity.” I have another idiom for this second definition: “out to lunch.” Such are the joys of the English language.

But even on vacation I have not been out to lunch or on the lake the entire time. One of the realities that sometimes comes with a profession—any profession—is the need to take care of business away from the office and outside the “normal” constraints of a forty hour work week. I once asked a colleague what the institutional expectation was in terms of a professional librarian’s schedule. Was it the 40 hours per week indicated in my letter of appointment or something else? She answered by saying that sometimes one needed to work until the work was done, whatever it took. I haven’t always agreed with that assessment, but now and then there’s not much of a choice. You do what you have to do. It is both a blessing and a curse, enhanced for good or ill by today’s technology. Thus, I find myself at a remote resort where I have mobile phone and internet access and the ability to complete some unfinished work—even if the wireless signal is sometimes interrupted by the screens on our cabin, forcing me to work outside on the picnic table.

I am reluctant to take work with me on vacation; it defeats the purpose of getting away, decompressing, and forgetting about work for a few days. But in this case—here my Sherlockian readers should take note—I needed to complete some details related to an upcoming auction that includes a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript of note (and one that we would like to acquire for our collection). If you’re reading this on the day I post it the auction will be underway and I’ll be tracking results from the north woods. From the moment I arrived at the cabin time was spent corresponding with friends across the country and colleagues at work to get administrative approval, remotely inspect the lot, gather additional information from those able to personally inspect the item of interest, strategize on a bid, collect necessary financial information, review terms and conditions, register with the auction house, and submit a bid. Such consultation and activity would have been more difficult—if not impossible—in an earlier age restricted to land line telephone calls and long distance bills. Now, from the comfort of my picnic table or the overstuffed chair by the fire—if the wireless signal is strong enough—I can write these words, post them to my blog, update colleagues and friends, figuratively bait a line, and see what bites.

Normally I set my blog to automatically post my next entry at 1am local time Thursday. In this case I waited until after “our” lot in the auction went under the hammer and the result was known. In this case “the big one” got away. We didn’t have enough bait on the line and were outbid by a Doylean angler with more tackle and deeper pockets—much deeper pockets. In this instance “gone fishing” was full of meaning, intent and hope, done with a group of friends I cherish, and an experience I’ll long remember. We weren’t successful at the auction but it was a great fishing trip all the same. Perhaps next time we’ll hook a big one and bring it home.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

30th Year Reflections/15: Questions About Time

“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” – Carl Sandburg

 I am at a certain point in my career—and life—where I find myself attending more funerals than weddings (or anniversaries or class reunions). At such occasions I find myself thinking about time, a dimension that seems to pass by with increasing speed. How do we manage our time? It is a question I have wrestled with my entire career. The pace associated with each new technology (and remember, I started in the teletype, punched cards, and acoustic coupler age) creates additional pressures and expectations. I now live and work in an age when the general expectation is such that if I do not answer a question or attend to a task immediately—regardless of where that question or task originates—dissatisfaction from the questioning or tasking party grows with each passing minute. I find myself fighting—rightly, I think—against such expectations of immediate gratification. In my less professional moments when faced with a request—especially from those outside my place of employment—I am tempted to utter a response I might later regret. So how do we manage not only time but expectations? Where do we find the time for more contemplative (and critical) analysis and thinking? Does the age of smart phones and tablets—equipped with more computing power than Apollo missions to the moon—imply that we are continually forced to think on our feet? Where is the time, to borrow from another profession, when the old will dream dreams and the young see visions?

Early in my career my supervisor sent me to a time management seminar. Smart person that she was—and is—she probably saw that I was struggling to manage my time and get projects done “in a timely manner.” That seminar—along with the typing class I took in high school—was probably the most useful and productive learning experience I ever had. Last time I checked (which was this week) I type upwards of eighty words a minute with few or no errors. My calendar is now the prime weapon in the organization of my time, tasks, and assignments. Work is prioritized, schedules created, and expectations—for the most part—met. But I still have a problem with my “external clients” who do not understand why they should be put in a queue and have to wait. An almost daily test comes with interlibrary loan requests. Our local agency has an expectation of a twenty-four turn-around time. Most, but not all of the time, we meet that expectation. But when faced with half a dozen ILL requests it means that something else has to wait; another e-mail or phone call goes unanswered while we’re in the stacks hunting down items to copy. It is the unexpected request, the walk-in researcher, the question from right field that can throw the day’s plan out the window.

In which case you pick yourself up, regroup, and get ready, i.e. plan for the next day. You can’t spend time fretting. A swift kick in the pants (figuratively speaking as such self-admonition is anatomically impossible) and a chant of the Nike slogan “just do it” usually gets me back on the rails. But then there are those times when you feel—and really are—underwater. That’s when you call for help. I have this Scandinavian predisposition (some might call it “Minnesota Nice”) towards “an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation.” Sometimes that genetic makeup gets in my way. When the need for help arises it is time to almost literally crawl out of my skin, confound my ethnicity, and ask for a helping hand. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in asking for help. Sandburg, a Swedish-American, had it almost right. Sometimes someone else—a trusted friend or colleague—will help you spend time wisely and pull you above water.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mr. Holmes Comes to Minnesota

While working through some archival files for my research on the closing of the U of M library school I came across a small Sherlockian tidbit that is worth sharing. I found it in the May 3, 1974 minutes of the library school council, a governing body made up of faculty and graduate students. The meeting, as the minutes report, opened at 9:30 that morning with some preliminary comments and reports. The third report came from Dr. Edward Stanford, formerly the University Librarian and now serving on the faculty. The minutes read: "Dr. Stanford reported that the University had purchased a private collection of materials related to Sherlock Holmes. The collection had been designated the Errett Weir McDiarmid Collection in honor of Dr. McDiarmid, leader of the Norwegian Explorers (Baker St. Irregulars)."

This was the beginning of what is now the largest assemblage of Sherlockian materials in the world. The collection the University acquired was that of James Iraldi, a book collector from New York and member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the primary Sherlockian literary society in North America. The Norwegian Explorers was founded in 1948 as a scion society of the Irregulars and is still active today. E. W. McDiarmid, also a former University Librarian and member of the library school faculty, was a founding member of the Explorers and known in his leadership role of the group as "Sigerson." That name, along with the name of the group, was taken from the Holmes story "The Adventure of the Empty House."

Sherlockians are fond of saying "I hear of Sherlock everywhere." Now we can add that his name resonates even through the archives of library school faculty minutes.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

30th Year Reflections/14: Librarians of Congress and the Minnesota Connection

“According to the best American and European tradition, the librarians that have left the most enduring marks have not been technical librarians….The danger of the technical librarian is that he over-emphasizes the collection and classification of books—the merely mechanical side of the library—and fails to see the library as the gateway to the development of culture.” — Justice Felix Frankfurter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on choosing a new Librarian of Congress

I like to read library history. One of the fascinating things to me as I read this history is how the profession expresses itself whenever the President of the United States fills a vacancy for the post of Librarian of Congress. Only one such vacancy has occurred during my professional life, in 1987 when the current Librarian, James Billington, was nominated by President Reagan. The Library of Congress web site lists all the previous Librarians. George Herbert Putnam, according to the site, was Librarian of the Minneapolis Athenaeum (1884-87), the Minneapolis Public Library (1887-91), the Boston Public Library (1895-99) and “the first experienced librarian to hold the post of Librarian of Congress.” By my count there have been two professional librarians in the post, the second being L. Quincy Mumford (1954-1974).

To me the most interesting squabble was over the nomination of Archibald MacLeish as the Ninth Librarian in 1939. Justice Frankfurter had more to say to Roosevelt on the matter:

What is wanted in the directing head of a great library are imaginative energy and vision. He should be a man who knows books, loves books and makes books. If he has these three qualities the craftsmanship of the librarian’s calling is an easily acquired quality. But only a scholarly man of letters can make a great national library a general place of habitation for scholars, because he alone really understands the wants of scholars.

The American Library Association “vigorously opposed” the nomination. 1,400 librarians signed a petition, sent by the ALA to Washington, declaring that “confirmation of Archibald MacLeish as Librarian of Congress would be a calamity.” McReynolds and Robbins, in their book The Librarian Spies, observed that librarians “would have been wounded by the dichotomy that Roosevelt and Frankfurter saw between ‘technical’ librarians and visionaries….To a great extent, however, librarians had themselves to blame for the apparent distinction since they had labored since the Melvil Dewey era to be businesslike, scientific, and efficient.” So the question in some ways comes back to professional identity and the curricula present in library schools of the day. Has the situation changed? I don’t think so.

There is another interesting tidbit in the historical record, this time related to filling the post after MacLeish. One name that appears in letters between Roosevelt and MacLeish as they discussed the latter’s successor was University of Minnesota historian Theodore Blegen. By some accounts FDR was prepared to name Blegen as the next Librarian before he, Roosevelt, died. Truman wanted to act on the Librarian post shortly after taking office. Working outside the ALA structure a number of other librarians including Keyes Metcalf at Harvard and E. W. McDiarmid at Minnesota lobbied Truman for the Blegen appointment. Carl Vitz, head of the Minneapolis Public Library and ALA president, was also brought into the effort. But it was not to be; Luther Evans was nominated for the post. It is interesting to contemplate what would have happened if Blegen received the appointment and what it might have meant to the citizens of Minnesota.