Thursday, July 25, 2013

30th Year Reflections/52: Bon Voyage

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Today I say goodbye to a colleague. I cannot call her a friend, for in my mind such a relationship goes deeper into spirit and soul. We have not scratched those surfaces together. But neither do I call her an enemy, for while we have had an occasional clash, we never went to war against each other. She has been a co-worker, facilitator, overseer, disciplinarian, encourager, leader, and so much more. She is a consummate professional. While not my mentor, I have glanced more than once in her direction for inspiration and guidance, wondering how she does what she does with such ease and poise. We are of a same age. If the winds had moved differently, we might have found ourselves together in graduate school. Instead, we carved our own paths, gathered experiences and expertise along the way, and found ourselves together at this time, in this place. For the last nine years we have worked together. Very soon, she will leave for a new adventure and challenge. I wish her well. She will be missed.

Her imminent departure got me to thinking of other departures, other partings. Thankfully, I can say that almost all the valedictions experienced during my career have been without rancor. Some separations were quiet and uneventful. Others came with a party, gifts, and well-wishes. Still others came with tears and hugs. Each time provoked an introspection—whether it was me taking leave or in farewell to another. Those moments of contemplation following a leave-taking offered a chance to take bearings, soundings, and make a course correction. Now, with this latest sendoff, I find myself wondering what needs attention, correction, or adjustment. What does the future hold? Will I be able to advance confidently in the direction of my dream?

And while a good part of any post-exodus analysis is self-directed or focused, at least part of this contemplation needs to be directed toward the other, the one no longer in the picture. I am painfully aware of at least one breaking of the fellowship in which there was little grace on either side. My default position in this case was one of silence and abstention. I offered no well-wishes and refrained from any recognition of the event. I felt at the time that to say or do anything in recognition would have been insincere. It was, in retrospect, not my best moment as a professional, or a human being.

I am reminded of a scene from a film adaptation of Len Deighton’s “Game, Set, and Match” series. At some point in the film an old hand in British intelligence offers some advice to his young protégé. While I cannot recall the exact quotation, it runs something like this: “Don’t isolate yourself laddie…you’ll need one or two of us before the day is through.” Working as I sometimes do as a “lone arranger” or with long stretches of time without interaction with other staff, it is easy for me to take a solitary route. The exit of my colleague reminds me of a better way, one done in the company of others. It is through such company that friendships are born.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

30th Year Reflections/51: Old School?

“If to the Old you the New Schools prefer, And to the fam'd Copernicus adhere; If you esteem that Supposition best, Which moves the Earth, and leaves the Sun at Rest.” — Sir Richard Blackmore, Creation (1712)

I may be experiencing a tiny bit of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I have an appreciation of the old, tried, and true. History and tradition inform who I am, what I believe, my praxis. On the other hand, I am open to new ideas, embrace innovative technologies, am not afraid to tinker or experiment (within reason). I can accept and work with change, if I see and understand the underlying logic or rationale behind that change. I am not a fan of change for change’s sake. There has to be a reason behind the change.

What sparked this dissonance? Let me count the ways. All the following headlines/titles were found in recent periodical articles from the American Library Association: makerspace movement, libraries “cache” in on geocaching treasure hunts, Bigfoot hunting, ghost hunters in the library, teaching with zombies, incorporating cartoons in an academic library…. There’s even a website (at least one) for librarians and makerspaces: The Librarian’s Guide to Makerspaces.

On the flip side, while going through some old e-mail I found a recommendation from a late, lamented friend urging a reading of T. Scott Plutchak’s 2011 Janet Doe Lecture on the history or philosophy of medical librarianship, presented at the 111th Annual Meeting of the Medical Library Association in Minneapolis. Plutchak’s lecture, “Breaking the barriers of time and space: the dawning of the great age of librarians,” is what I classify as “a keeper,” i.e. a lecture I’ve saved and plan to refer to again and again. Add to this Meredith Farkas’s offering in the May issue of American Libraries, “Spare Me the Hype Cycle,” and I think you get a good sense of what triggered the dissonance.

In the Sherlockian world (where I’m more than a casual visitor) a similar dissonance has erupted between “elite devotees” and “fandom” or between those with an interest in protecting intellectual property rights and the “Free Sherlock” movement, for whom Holmes belongs, unencumbered, to the world. I like to think of myself as a “big tent” kind of guy, able to appreciate various arguments pro and con. My job—at least on the Sherlockian front—is to stay above the fray, document and preserve as much of the discussion (however contentious) as possible, and make it available for future study and reference. This is the territory I’ve staked out for myself and my institution. We, as a library (and special collection), are neutral territory, the Switzerland among warring factions. It is the best way for us to deal with the Sherlockian dissonance swirling around us. It is the proper way for us to operate.

Plutchak’s lecture provides me with another metaphor or model for dealing with this professional or Sherlockian dissonance, i.e. conversation theory. Plutchak writes:

First elucidated by Gordon Pask in the mid-1970s, conversation theory maintains that the fundamental building block of new knowledge is conversation. This conversation may occur among individuals, but it may also be the conversation that occurs within oneself. Information is what fuels those conversations. The core function of librarians, according to Lankes, is to facilitate conversations for the purpose of advancing knowledge.

I’m all for conversation, be it about (or by) makerspaces, zombies, devotees, or fans. I’ll provide a table large enough for all to gather, from east, west, north, or south. Together, around the table, and with civil tongues we’ll talk about issues that trouble or interest us. I’ll be there to facilitate the conversation, hoping to advance not only knowledge, but understanding and wisdom. If such praxis is “old school” then count me in. We’re at the dawning of a great age.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Of Violence at Meiringen

“Man longs for the gift of full vision, to see past and future as well as his present, and to see it all through his own eyes. And so, thousands of miles from home, after long expectation I had come, not for a waterfall per se, however scenic, but to find a historic spot, the end of a rocky path, a few square feet of blackish soil kept forever soft.” — Dr. Philip S. Hench, “Of Violence at Meiringen,” in Exploring Sherlock Holmes (1957)

A new exhibit opened July 11. It is the latest edition in a string of triennial exhibits I’ve curated, going back to 1998. Each exhibit has been about Sherlock Holmes and associated with what has now become a tradition: a triennial Holmesian conference. Each conference has had a theme—2001: A Sherlockian Odyssey; A River Runs By It: Holmes and Doyle in Minnesota (2004); Victorian Secrets and Edwardian Enigmas (2007); The Spirits of Sherlock Holmes (2010). This year’s theme is “Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Place.”

Although I’m using the conference theme as the exhibit title, I could very well have titled it “Of Violence at Meiringen,” as the entire exhibit focuses on a small point in time, a precise place, and a pair of remarkable scholar-collectors. The time is the 1950s; the place is the Reichenbach Falls and the nearby Swiss village of Meiringen; the scholar-collectors are Nobel laureate and Mayo Clinic physician Dr. Philip S. Hench and his wife, Mary Kahler Hench. Together, they explored the life, times, and places of Sherlock Holmes, including the area near Meiringen and the Reichenbach—site of the epic struggle between Holmes and his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.

The violence Hench speaks of is connected to a number of events: the May 4, 1891 struggle at the Reichenbach Falls between Holmes and Moriary; the October 1891 fire that destroyed at least half of Meiringen’s buildings, with the loss of one life; and the realization, during a 1953 trip to Meiringen, that while memories of the fire remained, no one could remember the “Great Encounter” between the Master Detective and the Napoleon of Crime. Dr. Hench reflected on this literary violence:

To “murder” a man is crime enough: to “murder” the memory of a good man is worse. But to “murder” and then to bury the cherished memory of a great and good man, to destroy him, to tear him from the heart, to erase him from history and thus to eradicate all respectful memory of him (even if only from the knowledge of a single admirer, actual or potential), that is the worst of all. Surely, robbing a man of his “immortality” represents a violence against all humanity and justice. I could only wonder: has this happened to the memory of Sherlock Holmes, in Meiringen of all places! To neglect the memory of Sherlock Holmes, i.e., to forget him, is bad enough. But for those…pleasant people not even to know of him, that is even worse!... But however limited this area of ignorance (of Holmes) may be, and whatever excuse may be given for it, most surely a “crime” against the memory of Sherlock Holmes, and all that he still stands for, has been done in my presence this day!

The exhibit displays a number of prints collected by Dr. and Mrs. Hench during their trips to Switzerland; research notes, maps, and other materials gathered as they explored Meiringen and environs; copies of original printings of the Holmes adventure “The Final Problem”; materials documenting efforts by the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota to raise a memorial plaque at the site of the Holmes-Moriarty encounter; and items documenting the impact Holmes has on the tourism industry at Meiringen.

Dr. Hench later recounted his Swiss adventure as a chapter in Exploring Sherlock Holmes. He ended his account with these words:

Our plaque is, in effect, to serve as an envoy of good will, accredited to the Swiss in general, to Meiringen in particular. Bearing the names of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and of the Norwegian Explorers, the plaque serves as a friendly symbol of mutual interests. The plaque carries the features of a mutual friend who, both in this and in another likeness, lived and labored among our three peoples. To those who follow us we commend his life, character, and achievements.

The violence at Meiringen was no more. Justice was done. Holmes lives!

Images of items from the exhibit will also be available for online viewing in the UMedia Archive. The exhibit runs until September 27.

Friday, July 5, 2013

30th Year Reflections/50: RBMS

“We must grasp fully who, or more correctly what, our performer is. We must eliminate from the word ‘performer’ any notion that he is one who merely reproduces what someone else or even he himself has composed…. Our singer of tales is a composer of tales. Singer, performer, composer, and poet are one under different aspects but at the same time. Singing, performing, composing are facets of the same act.” — Albert B. Lord, quoted by James P. Ascher in the vade mecum of the 54th Annual RBMS Preconference

Last week I soaked up one of my favorite annual events: the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) Preconference. RBMS, as the name implies, is a section of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), a division of the American Library Association (ALA). I was a member of the local arrangements committee and thoroughly enjoyed the experience (although it meant some early mornings and long days). If given the chance, I highly recommend participation in a local arrangements committee (or program committee) for a conference such as this. Our committee was led by two of my colleagues, Marguerite (Maggie) Ragnow and Arvid Nelsen. They did a splendid job; it was a joy to work with them and other members of the committee.

Perhaps the most backbreaking thing I did in conjunction with getting ready for the conference was stuffing the conference tote bags (and hauling the boxes out from the back room when more bags were needed at the registration desk). It took us about five hours to fill four hundred tote bags with all the information related to the conference, the book dealer’s catalogs, local information, etc. (Thanks to Rob Rulon-Miller for sponsoring this year’s bags and everything else he did for the conference.) Given my height, bending over the spread of tables to put each piece (or pile of pieces) into the bag took a small toll on my back, but such little pains come with the job. I’ve come to the conclusion that anyone working with archival materials will eventually come down with a bad back, unless they’re especially attentive to the proper way to lift.

But enough about boxes, bags, and backs. Naturally, I have a local bias, but I think we did the Twin Cities proud with this conference. Our welcoming reception at the Mill City Museum was spectacular, the final plenary at Pantages Theatre very fitting to the conference theme, our various tours to “bookish” places delightful and informative, and the concert by the Rose Ensemble memorable. In between all the receptions, tours, concert, and other pleasures was a full schedule of seminars, talks, and discussions. Because I was involved in local arrangements I did not get to sit in on all the programming, but what I did experience was insightful and inspiring. At a seminar on bibliography I experienced the bibliographic equivalent of a straight-line wind in the presentation by Stephen Tabor from the Huntington Library. His research over the past two decades blew me away. Likewise, I enjoyed a bit of heat and light in another seminar on curators and book dealers, as the discussion following presentations centered on the continued use and value of dealers’ printed catalogues. At an “unconference” with colleagues in Midwestern institutions we participated in a wide-ranging discussion on professional development, collaboration, internships, exhibits, and other topics. I think we may have stumbled upon a few ideas worth pursuing, e.g. developing information RBMS unconferences for those unable to attend the “main event” due to diminishing travel funds, or creating a regional discussion list for sharing questions and issues closer to home.

Conferences such as RBMS help us grow and develop professional awareness and skills. They help us network and make new connections. Hats off to James Ascher and other members of the RBMS program planning committee for a very thought-provoking and useful conference. I hope everyone who attended RBMS in Minneapolis enjoyed their stay and had a chance to experience a bit of what we get to enjoy every day.