Why Do We Keep That Old Stuff?
April 1, 2011
Ah children, civilization has never seen a time without libraries, but millennia have passed without computers, and if things were no better then than they are now, they were no worse. In those days of ink and paper, those skilled in the ancient arts of indexing knew how to find secret texts. You may see those tools of the magi today, placed on shelves or corners of the library, waiting for knowing hands to open them and reveal their secrets. One such incident occurred recently.
An instructor named Pilsner, treasured by our academy, and skilled in the arts of pedagogy, was looking for a chapter from a book from 1977. Those were the days of Gerald Ford and the Berlin Wall. Michael Jackson was not only alive, he was Black. This book had been well-known in its day, and had done its part to stir the pot of bubbling humanity. But time had passed, and the library did not own a copy of the book. This meant there would be extra steps and expenses involved in putting this reading on reserve for the students. Pilsner, as the instructor was named, approached the librarian, not old in years, but wise in the ways of the ancient arts. "What am I to do?" he asked.
"Colleague, there may be a way" said one of the designated keeper of the world’s knowledge. "Provide me the name of the creator of this document, and its theme."
"It was written by a philosopher of society named Coles, and it deals with the children of the wealthy, and the surprising difficulties of their lives." The librarian’s eyebrow arched. "I have found that it is an effective method of tutelage" continued the instructor, "as for our students these children are exotic creatures indeed."
"Give me a day" intoned the librarian, "and we will see what we can do." The instructor touched his hand to his forelock as the librarian made a small bend from the waist, and with this exchange of mutual respect, the two went on their way.
Neverbored, for that was the librarian’s name, knew where to begin. He climbed the winding stairs into the scriptorium’s tower, and went directly to the shelves that stored the ancient indexes. He walked confidently to one section of the stacks, and eyed the classic titles. Masterplots. Magill’s Cinema Annual. Critical Survey of Short Fiction. Grainger’s Index to Poetry brought a bit of a sigh, as he remembered the days when people sought out poems for special occasions. Still, he continued on. Book Review Digest, Play Index, Applied Science and Technology Index passed under his fingertips, and then he reached the area he sought. With trained hands he pulled the 1977 volumes for the cream-colored Social Science Index, the white-bound Humanities Index, and the green-wrapped classic Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature. With these tucked under his arm, he returned to the reading room. For here is the odd thing about the library arts my children- they are not a secret. Librarians know that knowledge is magic in one true way: even when provided to others, the stock pile is not diminished, and that act of sharing makes the stock expand.
He flipped open the codices, and experienced fingers quickly guided him to the pages he sought. Nothing in the one. No matter, let’s try the next. Nothing there either. Let’s keep on- and there, in the Readers’ Guide was the entry he sought:
- COLES, Robert Children of affluence: excerpt from Privileged ones: the well-off and the rich in America. il Atlantic 240:52-8+ S ‘77
This did require a bit of knowledge in the cryptic arts. "il" meant illustrations, Atlantic was the name of the magazine, issue number 240, starting on page 52, continuing to page 58, and then continued elsewhere in the magazine. S meant September, and ’77 was the year. Neverbored smiled, but his victory was not complete. Did the scriptorium hold this document? He repaired to the computer (because he feared them not, and knew they had value) and found that the electron-based holdings, large as they were, did not extend back to 1977. "Still room for improvement there" he mused, "5400 years of civilized life, but the computer cannot reach back more than 30." Still, he did not fear, for in his mind he knew that there were uncataloged treasures lying in the microfilm boxes.
He walked to the metal cases that held the film, found the drawer that would hold "Atlantic", and was pleased to see a roll of 35 millimeter film labeled "Atlantic Monthly" with the desired date. He popped it out of the box and mounted it on the viewer, a Minolta, and at one time considered high tech. (It was used now mostly by clever biology students who printed out copies of slides of paramecium.) Some fiddling with knobs and switches led in short order to an illuminated screen, displayed on which was a page from the magazine. He scrolled to the proper area of the roll, and then slowed the film down to find page 52. Other treasures of the past came before his eyes - cigarette ads, cartoons, and poetry, all evocative of a time and place. The article rolled before his eyes. Neverbored began to print the pages, and remembered the public’s joy when a printer was first attached to a reader.
A moment later, he had the article in hand, ready to hand to Pilsner on his next trip to the library. The ancient words were revealed, and the students could read them without the academy paying out a small treasure of silver coins. Neverbored was pleased to be a member of a profession that kept knowledge safe and made it freely available to others. It was a good life.
Library & Learning
Vol. 3 Issue 4 April 2011