Monday, November 26, 2012

30th Year Reflections/25: In the Woods

“For sounds in winter nights, and often in winter days, I heard the forlorn but melodious note of a hooting owl indefinitely far; such a sound as the frozen earth would yield if struck with a suitable plectrum, the very lingua vernacula of Walden Wood, and quite familiar to me at last, though I never saw the bird while it was making it.”— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I am not worried about catching up on a blog entry if, perhaps, I miss a week or two. I figure everything will even out in the end. All the same, I missed a spot a couple of weeks ago and now have time to fill in the blank. I do so with some slight hesitancy as my absence—which I’ll speak of in a moment—was due to the pleasure of an avocation, one probably not enjoyed by a large number of librarians. I was in the woods hunting white-tailed deer.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot in the library literature about professional hobbies or avocations. A casual search turned up just a few articles, one directing me to a list of websites with interesting titles. Anything having to do with hobbies, so the literature has me believe, also has to do with our “image.” Frankly, I’m tired of discussions about librarians’ image. They don’t do anything for me and I think do very little for the profession—except to confirm that we have an image problem or suffer low self-esteem. Following along with the stereotype I’m sure many folks believe librarians’ hobbies include (or are limited to) reading and gardening and cookery. And they might be right. Librarians like to read and garden and cook. I like to read. I like to garden. I like to cook. But I also like to hunt. Other librarians like to do other things in their free time. We’re not all cut from the same cloth.

I like to be out in the woods before the break of day, to sit quietly and watch the world come alive, to find myself moving from darkness to light as the indistinguishable gains shape and form with the coming of the sun. I am pleased by a skill, gained over many years, of sitting still—absolutely still—to the point at which I am confused for a tree or the stump of a tree, as a chickadee lands on the barrel of my gun, mistaking it for a branch. I am thrilled to sit in such silence, senses on edge to movement and echo and smell, as the sound of wind under wings swooshes above me or the crackling twig or rustling leaf announces a new arrival in the woods. I have heard Thoreau’s owl in the distance and the dawn. Sometimes such sounds announce my quarry, the steady crunch over ice-glazed snow or dried leaves coming nearer. Most of the time, in such circumstances, I meet with success and in so doing experience a holy moment know mostly to those native to this land. It is a moment of respect and of thankfulness. There is no joy in a blood sport but rather a testimony to the woods themselves and those who created them, to a circle of life.

There is something mystical or divine here and perhaps hard to explain to a non-hunter. Those few days I have in the woods are the most restorative of the year. Plunk me down on a stump or stone in the middle of a wood, give me two or three quiet days, and once back in the office I’m good to go for another year. I have been a hunter since the age of fourteen or fifteen; I started fishing when I was three. Much of this time has been spent in the company of my father. Now into his ninth decade, he’s put hunting to the side; my sons and daughter fill the vacuum. It is a tradition passed on from generation to generation. It is a time bursting with memories.

Part of this, frankly, involves research—something librarians are good at. You need to know your prey, know your woods, know your limits. For the past fifteen years I’ve hunted on private land with family and friends. I knew the land; scouted it; walked its paths, watering holes, and resting beds. This year I hunted on public land, in one of the many wildlife management areas operated by our state department of natural resources. Before I headed into the woods I studied maps and aerial photographs. I knew where trails led, what the terrain offered, what vegetation I would encounter. It was a new adventure, in a new place, but linked in so many ways to memories and places past. This new experience allowed me to take a well-developed skill set and apply it in a new way, in a new time and place.

In the end I saw few deer; there is no new venison in my freezer. But the sound that greeted me mid-morning of the first day, a thunderous romp that materialized from the west into three large does bounding majestically through the woods is a sight and sound that will stay with me to the end of my days—and get me through those times in the office when I can only dream of the woods.

Friday, November 23, 2012

30th Year Reflections/24: Giving Thanks

On a day set aside long ago to give thanks, it is good to pause and do this very thing. We do not take enough time, I believe, to say thank you. We need to find more time, to be intentional in our thanks, for gifts large and small, for those with whom we work who show us daily kindness, who make our work pleasant, who toil behind the scenes, never seeking public praise for their labors. And so, allow me this time, on this special day, to offer words of thanks. These come in no particular order but as the spirit moves within my mind and memory and being. I give thanks:

-- For work itself, for the joy and security that comes with the job, in a time when so many are out of work or underemployed.
-- For a meaningful profession that puts me in daily contact with amazing people from all walks of life, who come to me seeking assistance, to find that hidden treasure or much-needed book.
-- For the long days when life and work never seem to end, when tired bones and aching feet remind me of my own mortality, and yet whisper to me that life is good even in my exhaustion.
-- For curious minds and creative souls who produce new things, discover or ponder new ideas, who wrestle with the unknown knowing that just beyond their grasp is some new thing that might change our lives for the better.
-- For volunteers and friends who give of their time, above and beyond what we might expect, and in doing so help us along the way as we both move through time and space.
-- For those more knowledgeable than I who, in their patient teaching, mentoring, or supervision smooth the rough spots, allow us to peek into their own areas of expertise, and in so doing impart a bit of wisdom and insight.
-- For music and those who write it, perform it, broadcast it, or in other ways bring another dimension to our lives; for tunes and melodies and lyrics that speak to us in ways words alone will never do, that lift our spirits when all around seems dim and hopeless.
-- For the wisdom of generations and joys of family; in seeing a younger generation come of age, find their own voice, discover their own gifts and talents; to see the hope of ages in the playful young and the spark of love in the tender eyes of a newborn grandchild.
-- For the joy of service, in doing a job well, in sharing knowledge and expertise with others that moves the whole enterprise of life and work forward.
-- For patience when things seem to come to a full stop, when barriers seem insurmountable, when confusion reigns and all seems lost; for the still, small voice that cuts through the foggy mist of existence, that calms the soul, and says in unmistakable terms that all will be well.
-- For the whoop and holler of delight, the fist-pumping joy that comes when all turns out well, when excellence is attained, when there is no doubt that we “nailed it” and in so doing we bring joy, a sense of completeness, or a new little insight to ourselves and those around us.
-- For those who make it possible for us to do what we do, in freedom, while they find themselves in dangerous situations, on the far side of the world, far from family, friends, and the homeland they love.
-- For the freedom to speak out, write, or in other ways communicate our pleasure or displeasure to those in power with any idea, policy, proposal, or tactic that betters or threatens the common good and to do so without threat of punishment or reprisal.
-- For those things unnamed or forgotten that yet steer us toward the light.
-- For memory, a recollection of both the good and the bad, the ability to share those memories with others, and in the sharing a realization that we are not alone, that many have walked this or a similar path before.
-- For thanksgiving itself, the good and many gifts that come from those simple words: thank you.

Best wishes to you during this season of Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

30th Year Reflections/23: The Day After

“The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work. And we citizens also have to rise to the occasion.” — Governor Mitt Romney

"I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.” — President Barack Obama

I am predisposed, perhaps even biased. There are times when it is appropriate to state this up front. Today is one of those days. I cut my teeth on politics in Chicago. I am a member of the Democratic Party. I stayed up until three this morning (Wednesday) celebrating that predisposition, slept for two hours, and awoke to a new day. With the dawn came a fist-pumping joy, but also a sense of caution, a deep respect for the democratic process, a patriot’s love of country, and a desire to keep any impulse to gloat as far away from my being as possible.

My caution and desire to keep the crowing at bay is rooted, in part, in my professional identity. A few months ago I wrote about professional ethics and the ALA code. Allow me to refresh our collective memories with a few key statements from the code:

…In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations…

VI. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.

VII. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.
We are, indeed, at a critical point in the history of our country and we are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions. It is the day after the election and regardless of whether we won or lost it is time to put the common good front and center. We need to call up the best within our being—individually and collectively—to work to improve the life that flows around and through us. We, as librarians and keepers of the social transcript, need to do everything in our power to assist our fellow citizens and provide them with the full range and unfettered access to all the information, thought, opinions, and ideas under our care. We need to inform ourselves, as professionals, of all the issues that influence our abilities to do our jobs and to do them well. We need to advocate for positions that bolster the common good, make us all better citizens, and move us forward as a country.

Along the way we will, no doubt, disagree with others on what constitutes the common good or makes us a better profession. We will need to constantly interrogate our own thoughts and ideas, to make sure we find the correct balance and distinction between our personal convictions and professional duties. If we do these things with respect, with a continuing ear to the minority voice even as we stand in the majority, if we treat others as we would treat ourselves, if we look and work hard in times of conflict for that common ground and spirit of consensus, we will do great things. I am hopeful for our country. I am proud of my profession. I have faith in those ancient words that still ring true today:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

30th Year Reflections/22: Before "Sandy"

“News coverage and reports from state libraries offered little information about damage to public and academic libraries in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Atlantic Coast five miles southwest of Atlantic City, New Jersey, on the evening of October 29….An unconfirmed report from a staff member at the Queens Library in New York City suggests that three branches on the Rockaway peninsula of Long Island were flooded.” — American Libraries

Libraries and librarians will probably live through at least one storm in the course of their career. For me the storm to end all storms occurred in Chicago over the course of a couple of days in the summer of 1987. I was new to the job, having been on site for less than two months. I did not have a firm grasp of all the collections under my care, but knew where they were housed, including a storeroom and hall lockers, both in the basement. I also knew a bit about the building in which everything was kept. Most of the collection was on the second floor, high above any potential danger from flooding or water damage. The building, which I shared with a graduate program, had a history of basement flooding given its close location to the north branch of the Chicago River and the presence of floor drains on the lower level connected to the city storm sewers.

And so it was a matter of some concern when the skies opened late on a midsummer day and continued to rain into the night. I lived a short distance from my office and so late in the evening went over to investigate the state of affairs. Everything was still dry. But the rains continued overnight and the next morning I was up early, back to a building that scared me. On arriving, I had reason to be frightened. The tiles on the basement floor were weeping water around the grout lines. There was no standing water on the floor and nothing near the floor drains, but I was concerned all the same. I went immediately to the basement storeroom and started to move things off the floor and from the lower shelves. I did not finish the job in time.

The building housing my collections had another feature, one that came into play an hour after I arrived: it was connected to other buildings on campus by steam tunnels that delivered hot water/steam heat to the building. Unbeknownst to me these tunnels were flooding and by 8:30 in the morning they were nearly full. The water had no where to go except through the breaks in the foundation walls where the steam pipes entered the building. It was as if someone turned on a fire hose as water streamed into the basement hallway from the tunnel.

Overnight, because of the constant rain, the river rose. It was nearly over its banks by morning. This compounded the issue because in other places of the city the river was already over its banks and—combined with the rain—overwhelming the storm sewers. This change in hydro-dynamic pressure soon was apparent as the floor drains in the basement, along with the basement stools and urinals in the two bathrooms, began to bubble up like fountains. Water came in through every available opening. In a matter of minutes the water rose to the level of the first step on the basement stairs and continued rising throughout the morning. Ankle deep in contaminated water, with no real protection or adequate boots, I went back to the storeroom and continued moving materials to higher shelves. Items left on the floor and in the hallway lockers were a lost cause, the moisture wicking up through stacks of books and periodicals. Thankfully, I knew enough about the collections to recognize that most of this material was duplicate and could be sacrificed. It was the stuff I didn’t know about that caused the most concern.

By midday—still waiting for large pumps to evacuate the water from the basement—I was wrapping damp materials in brown craft paper and trucking it over to a walk-in freezer made available to me by the campus food service. Later, with my director’s permission, I bought another freezer off the Sears showroom floor and had it delivered, set-up, and available for more materials. It would take weeks and months to work through the aftermath of the flood. Other buildings were damaged, some more important that mine to the overall operations of the campus. It was, in many ways, a baptism by fire (or more appropriate, flood) and one that came with many lessons I’ve retained and used again over the years. Thankfully, I’ve never lived through another storm like that, but I have some empathy with what is now happening on the East Coast.