Making Things Happen and Getting Things Done

This post has been a long time in the making. Several weeks ago, my fellow librarian and friend, Meg Ecclestone, wrote about maintaining subject expertise in LIS. This is a good topic to discuss in any profession, but it’s especially so within academic librarianship since we’re constantly interacting with researchers from so many different fields. Of course, how exactly a librarian should maintain subject expertise is not a new concern that’s recently bubbled to the surface, so I won’t speak too much about it, especially since Meg did a good job summarizing some tips on this issue. Instead, it got me thinking about Making Things Happen and Getting Things Done (which are two unofficial slogans of the MLIS programme at Dalhousie University’s School of Information Management).

At the heart of things, Meg was talking about professional development. How do you stay ahead of the game? How do you keep up with new developments in your field, or how do you stay proficient in your work? Some professions require constant credential re-certification (which is a good thing – think about that the next time you’re in hospital), while others have a more informal approach. Recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to have started a new position, so I’ve had a number of conversations with people about how to keep your skills sharp and find positive gain. For those of you looking for a quick way out of this post, know that the answer is found in hard work and perseverance. For those of you looking for detail, I offer some advice, below. These suggestions are not new, profound, or original. But I think they bear repeating because they are so consequential to getting ahead and finding personal fulfillment on the job.

Steeleworthy’s Advice on Making Things Happen and Getting Things Done (Regardless of Your Profession)

  • Meet People.

Whatever you want to do in life, you’ll never get to do it unless you get out there and meet people. Most people are good people, most people want to meet other people, and most people want other people to succeed. We are social creatures. People like to share knowledge, expertise, and experience, so you have a lot to gain by going to events, arranging informational interviews, and developing a presence on social media. The message here is clear: meeting people helps you learn things and do things. You stand to live and work in an echo chamber if you do not meet others inside and outside the library. And you never know what sort of opportunity these new colleagues might bring. If you are not convinced, I invite you to read Graham Lavender’s post on how networking brought clear gains to his everyday life.

  • Do Things (or: Make Mistakes) (or: Learn).

My advice is to just do things. Understand that some mistakes will happen along the way, and that is okay. Do not be afraid to try a new workflow, to take on a new project, or to state an opinion. If you don’t give yourself the opportunity to try new things, it will be very difficult to master anything at all. I promise you that you will make mistakes. There will be times when you will do something wrong or will be completely misinformed. But so long as you keep yourself open to new ideas and are willing to treat these experiences as learning moments, you will likely come out ahead in the long run. Have faith in your ability to get the job done and in your colleagues’ ability to offer help and guidance along the way. And remember, there is no try. Only do. It’s cliché now, but it’s true.

  • Read. Write. Learn.

I don’t care if you prefer the scroll to the codex or the stone tablet to the electronic tablet; your preference for format is inconsequential. What matters is that you read. You must read and you must stay informed on advances and arguments and debates in your field. But it doesn’t end there. For the love of all things holy and sacred in your world, write. Reading the latest material and the classic volumes is not going to get you anywhere if you cannot explain your opinions on the subject matter. The act of writing will help you understand what you have read, and it will help you express your thoughts on the matter. This is why I blog. When I blog, I force myself to think closely about a subject and to express an opinion. That opinion may be wrong or misinformed at times (see: Do Things, above), but it’s part of the learning experience. Reading – and writing – is how you can take command of your subject matter. So start a journal or a blog, or create a Tumblr to get all your thoughts in one place (like commonplace books of old). And consider writing for publication. You will be better for it, and you will help others better themselves, too.

  • Form Opinions.

Open mouth, insert foot. This kid is going in for the kill.

This is related to reading and writing, but it’s important enough to be its own action. It’s important that you formulate opinions on topics, and not only in your writing. Remember to speak up, be heard, and contribute to the teams you are a part of. The workplace is a team environment and people are going to want to know what you think. Don’t worry too much about being misinformed. It’s worse to be stubborn than it is to be misinformed, because those who are misinformed still have the chance of taking in the bigger picture and learning an issue fully. I want you, whoever you are right now, to not be afraid to open your mouth and insert your foot at your next meeting.  You can always take your foot out and apologize and learn from the mistake (see: Do things, above).

  • Ask Questions and Take Advice (See Also: Meet People).

When you’re new to the workplace or the field, you will be surrounding yourself with people who have a lot of knowledge to share, so pick up this wisdom whenever you can. Show yourself as willing to listen and learn (be willing to listen and learn, for that matter). Don’t be afraid to ask questions; there are no stupid questions. And though you may have to schedule a different time, never turn down an invitation for coffee with a colleague. Listening to people and taking advice are the first steps you can take to turn your book-smarts to street-smarts.

  • Make goals, set timelines, and assess your work.

I’m not asking that you let Google Calendar rule your life. I am suggesting that you’ll never get something done until you turn it into something you can work toward and schedule time for. And be prepared to assess your work. Don’t aim for perfection on all things or you will start suffering from the law of diminished returns. Instead, aim for excellence, pat yourself on the back when you get it, and evaluate how you can do better the times you wish you did.

So there you are: good pieces of advice to live by. I’ll summarize it all by mentioning the official slogan from the university where I took my BA: Age quod agis, or, What you do, do wellI am certainly no wunderkind in my field and I don’t profess to be one at all. But I do give it my all at work to carry my load, contribute to the team, learn from my colleagues, and make a difference in my field.  And there is fulfillment in that.

The former director of my library school once playfully remarked that many people are ultimately hired based on whether the hiring committee wants to work with them at 8:30 on a Monday morning, and I think there’s some truth to that. So many of my suggestions above are social in nature. They are about learning from and contributing to the workplace.  And that’s how you make things happen and get things done: find your niche and do whatever you can to make a meaningful contribution and to make yourself amenable to your peers.  That’s how you make positive results for yourself in the end.

Reflections one year out of library school

This past June marked a year’s time since I graduated from library school, and this July marked the end of a one-year contract that I started just weeks after crossing the stage.  I was real fortunate to find work so quick after getting my MLIS degree, and I thank my lucky stars for that everyday.  Of course, there was some skill and good grace involved, but I know that finding work often involves being the right person in the right place at the right time, and that’s why having a good education from the beginning is important, so going to a good primary school helps a lot with this, and there are some great options online for this, as the International School of Bangkok. Visit their website here: to find more information about this.
Anyway, July was a whirlwind for me.  Between wrapping up projects and clearing off my desk, using up the last of my vacation, and taking in a few more short conferences, I had little time to think about what I’ve done since graduating and what that meant.  But now that I’ve found a moment’s peace, I can lay out some advice to recent LIS graduates, based on what I’ve learned the past year.  It’s imperfect, I’m sure, but nothing is ever 100% or complete in this world, so I’m okay with what follows.

Advice to LIS graduates from a recent LIS graduate:

  • Share your opinions with your employers and colleagues
    • You still have a lot to learn, and these people can help you along the way.  But more importantly, these people want to know your opinions, too.  You may be new and green, but to a lot of people, you represent vast potential because you can bring different and new ideas to the table.  You shouldn’t ever take over a meeting with your opinions and antics, but you should definitely speak up and be heard.  Remember: you won’t be hired to be a bump on a log, so make sure your contribute to your library and your team.
  • Don’t shoot for the moon
    • Once you land a job, you may be so full of enthusiasm that you’ll want to tackle everything at once.  Don’t do this.  Prioritize what needs to be done against the library’s timelines, your schedule, and also against your own learning curve.  Taking on too much will burn you out and potentially let others down.  Instead, create a schedule with your supervisors or mentors, and return to it regularly to adjust it up or down.  This shows foresight: they’ll appreciate that you’re balancing your duties and also keeping them in the loop.
  • Ask Questions
    • You’re going to be a brand new hire at a brand-new-to-you organization.  Your co-workers will know this and expect you to have some questions.  Frankly, it would be weird (if not unfriendly) if you never ask them anything about how things work locally.  These people will become your mentors, and they will be expecting you to be looking for guidance on some things and instruction on others.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions – it’s best the way to get to know your new workplace, colleagues, and duties.
  • Spend time at the end of the day planning for the next one.
    • For your mental health, turn off your e-mail 20 minutes before your day ends in order to focus on what you’ve accomplished today and what’s in store for the next.  This is a simple planning technique that will make 830AM Wednesday not appear so daunting because you’ll walk into Hump Day knowing already what ought to be worked on first.
  • Keep reading.  Keep learning
    • Librarianship (especially academic librarianship) is an awkward blend of theory and practice.  Take time in your schedule (mark it in your calendar) to research what’s going on your field:  look at academic and professional journals; read some blogs; get in the conversation on Twitter and Google Plus.  Since you’ll have just started work (or will soon be starting work), it will be easy to fall out of the loop on account of the duties you’ll be taking on while on the job (see my points above).  Therefore, plan ahead and reserve time to keep yourself up on LIS news and research
    • Look ahead to what you will formally study in the future.  Whether it’s professional development or a part-time degree or certificate, you should be thinking about what you may want to study in the future that will help you get the Next Great Job You Really Want, or that will help you stay informed about the Great Job You Just Found And Don’t Want To Leave.  “Continuous Learning” isn’t just a happy PR line.  It’s a requirement for life, in my mind.
  • Keep networking.
    • I don’t care if you do it in person or online, but don’t stop meeting people.  Networking isn’t greasy.  Networking is just what people do – getting to know other people, which will be helpful at work and at play (you never know who your new Best Friend Forever will be).  And make a point to meet people outside of Libraryland, too.  There are a lot of people working outside of LIS whose interests are similar to our own, and they can bring you new perspectives and ideas that you may not be thinking about simply because they’re working with a different network in the first place.
  • Keep writing job applications.
    • Don’t fret when you don’t find work right away.  And don’t fret when the term position comes to an end, either.  Like I said at the very beginning of this post – finding work is a combination of your hard work and a little bit of chance.  Find postings that appeal to you for whatever reason, and then apply to them.  Don’t worry about what you can’t control (i.e., the candidate pool).  Just write the best damn application you can every time (but never lie), and know that you’ve given it your all every time.  And keep applying.  The world may be going broke, but there are still jobs out there.  And your perseverance will pay off, I promise.
      • (Sidenote: Are you interested in academic postings only?  Keep in mind that the hiring process in academic library land can be real slow, and that often, postings open three times in the year: Fall, Winter, and Spring.  Don’t let this get you down: it is what it is.)
Have you got any advice to share?   Comment below and share your insight!

On organizing and networking

One of the things I do in my Working Life is serve as one of the two co-chairs of the Dalhousie student chapter of the CLA.  Although I took this role on with a little bit of reluctance (I’m a busy guy, always on the go, etc etc), I’m happy to do my part in this volunteer capacity.

There has been quite a bit of work involved with standing in for the CLA at the student level.  This workload is balanced, however, with the opportunities I’ve had to meet an inordinate amount of people – young stars and veterans alike – in the LIS field in Canada.  In the past two weeks I’ve spearheaded a successful Professional Partnering Programme that matches LIS students at Dal’s School of Information Management with professionals in the region, as well as helped organize an annual talk given by the president of the CLA to the students of the class. Last Friday, John Teskey, CLA Prez, rolled into town and gave a great casual chat to 35 students on the role and effects of technology within the profession and on our own careers.  It was all very good, and the organizing committee was more than pleased with the results.

By reflecting on this past month, however, when so much of my time has been committed to organizing these two events, I’m glad to have shoved away my initial reluctance to take on the role of co-chair. I’ve met a lot of people – formally and informally – in the past six months (let alone the past year) by way of working with the CLA, and I’ve begun to figure out exactly what fields I’d like to work in, ideally with whom, and ideally where in the world I’d like to work.  But it hasn’t been all one-sided – this close interaction with seasoned professionals is perhaps a small reward (if not an intangible perk) for my volunteer associations work.  I may be left “some-kinda-tired” at the end of certain weeks, but in the long run the local LIS community has improved – if ever so slightly – by my efforts, and hopefully so will my career opportunities.

So is this a general call to go and volunteer in associations in your field?  Possibly, yes.  I think it may be more pointed, though.  If you’re an LIS student, then think long and hard about taking part in these extra-curricular activities.  The coursework in your programme will help you learn about theories and methods in librarianship and information science, but don’t forget about the stuff going on outside of the classroom.  Where a people-profession, for sure, so be sure to get to know some people.

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The library science doctorate and the professional librarian

(A tender caveat: these opinions are only partly uninformed.)

I subscribe to a listserv for library managers, directors, and administrators, aptly called  LibAdmin.  I’m hardly a library manager, director or administrator, but I plan on being one soon, and the mailing list has afforded me the chance to be the fly on the wall and listen in conversations I’ll may get to take part in in the future.

I’ve noticed that every couple of months some one asks the LibAdmin crowd if it’s advisable to take a PhD in library and information science in order to advance their career in academic librarianship.  The question is premised on the fact that university librarians are on the whole considered deans, and deans have PhDs; therefore it’s reasonable that (1) the peer group demands new members to be as qualified as they are, and (2), there will surely be candidates for any university librarian position who already have the PhD, so enrolling in one well ahead-of-time is just a wise career move for a potential applicant to make.

The discussion that ensues after this question is asked is interesting at the beginning, but not substantive in its follow-through.  Although this is partly to do with the nature of e-mail listservs, it is most mostly owing to the diverse nature of the academic librarianship.  Most respondents to the question answer by saying they have X, Y, or Z degree over and above the MLIS and that this degree either helped them or did not in their career.  Developing anything close to a consensus in this argument is a bit of a fool’s game, not because the question or its answers are foolish, but because everyone’s got a story to tell and so many times these stories are struck from personal experience.

But is there anything that can be distilled from discussions about whether or a doctorate in LIS is necessary to secure a position as a university librarian in North America?  It might be fair to say that many institutions expect their applications to have a PhD in hand even if the time spent attaining it might have been better served in the field or by doing graduate work in public or educational administration.  It might also be fair to say that in spite of all the arguments which suggest that getting a PhD makes good business sense, many recent University Librarians do not have the degree and cannot be called “doctor” and yet maintain their budgets, explore avenues for institutional growth, and have the respect of their dean-level peer group.  In the end, the situations are always going to be particular to the applicant and to the institution itself.

As for me (this is where the “partly uninformed” part comes in), if I had to come down with an opinion in this argument, I’d argue that it might be more important for an academic library director to be an expert in organizational management than to have spent 5-7 years researching X topic in LIS.  The day-to-day affairs of a university librarian deal more with planning, projecting, and organizing than it does with breaking new ground in his or her particular field of research, be that field indigenous peoples and intellectual property or the digital divide as it exists in North America.  That’s not to say that I have no care for the PhD in LIS.  On the contrary, I constantly wrestle with the idea of conducting further research in the field (particularly in digital technologies and (inter-)national copyright reform or in civil rights, ethics, and LIS), but before doing so I’d like to first spend some time considering the organizational structure of libraries, archives, and museums.  I think if I were to enroll in an MPA or an MBA, I might have a better opportunity to engage in critical and interdisciplinary work in library management, which might do me and my own little part in the profession a little bit of good.

What are you thoughts on the subject?  How does the PhD in Library and Information Science fit within the profession of (academic) librarianship?

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“Librarian” is not a dirty word

When I first got into librarianship, I wasn’t too bothered that some people wanted to call the profession “information science” while others demanded to hold fast to the “librarianship” moniker. I thought both sides were being petty: I figured that people who wanted to be “librarians” felt that “knowledge managers” should enroll in a different graduate programme, and that those who wanted to be in knowledge management felt that the people who were focused on libraries were outdated luddites who ought to get with the times. Although I was uninformed of the politics at play within the profession, I figured this was all a question of staking ground through semantics and nothing more.

Maybe it is still a question of semantics, but nowadays I’ve taken a stand and have grown tired of the demand to rebrand this profession as “information science.” I’ve wondered what has changed so much that a new term had to be created, or if the profession has moved so far or altered its course so much that it has completely outgrown the words “librarian” and “librarianship”. But I don’t think we’ve moved so far away to require such a rebranding. In spite of my own biases (I’m a librarian, and I work in libraries), I’m willing to contend that even though our tools and methods have changed dramatically, the profession’s mission remains remarkably similar today to what it was fifty or a hundred years ago (i.e., well before the time of the venerable Ranganathan). Librarians organize information, locate it for themselves and for others, store and preserve it for the community, and therein help nurture the creation of knowledge in society. This much has remained present in the profession, before and after MARC, before and after the Internet, and before and after the emergence of our Network(ed) Society.

The fact that we use OPACs and something as close to a union catalogue that has yet been created instead of a card catalogues doesn’t change the fact that librarians have always used novel means to store, organize, and retrieve information. The fact that today’s MLIS graduate should have a smattering of IT courses on her transcript doesn’t remove her too far the old days when the tools were limited to punch cards and MARC records.  Our analysis and influence on government policy and its effects on wider society is no different from calling for better literacy rates in the early twentieth century. Our defense of basic civic rights such as security and privacy of the person, and of a right to speak, think, and read freely, is not removed from our profession’s vital defence of similar basic rights throughout the twentieth century. History shows us that librarianship has always focused on information science and information studies even though we didn’t always call it by those terms.

I’m not against changing the name of our profession. If the wise sages amoung us have decided that perhaps a new moniker is necessary to better promote our professional ideals and standards, then to a certain degree I’m willing to give them a certain benefit of the doubt (note well the double-qualifier in that sentence). However, I still question what our profession would lose by effacing itself of the historic and symbolic value inherent in the terms, “librarian” and “librarianship.” Yes, there will always be unacceptable stereotypes for us to constantly battle, like the bee-hived and bespectacled “shushing” grandmother-librarian, or the equally unacceptable and misogynistic “sexy librarian” trope, but these are merely paltry issues that linger within terms that carry an incredible gravitas in the profession and within western culture. To deny ourselves of the use of “librarian” is to rob ourselves of our culture’s understanding and respect for the role we play in society. Libraries and Librarians are often the lynchpins of communities and the storehouses of a local culture’s social history. Removing Librar* from our profession in favor of the clinical “information science” is to destroy the link that we have to the people we serve. Let us not forget that.

Call it “information science” if you will. But keep “librarianship” close at hand. I simply ask you to think about what you say you do for a living or to which profession you belong when you meet some one new.  Rarely do we say, “I work in information science,” or “I am an information scientist”. No, we tell people we’re librarians, and that we work in libraries, archives, and museums. “Librarian” is not a dirty word, and neither is “Librarianship.” Embrace what you are, and proudly tell people what you do for a living and for society as a whole – they’ll respect for you it. I promise.

On the Job: Information Literacy and Promotion

After a short break from other courework and a small vacation, I started a summer contract in Information Literacy at the Saint Mary’s University Library, here in Halifax.

Regular readers (you may be dedicated, but you are few) will recall that I’ve worked at the library part-time this past year at the reference desk, but before that time I was a regular instructor and lecturer at the University’s Writing Centre.  Long ago, I was also a student at SMU graduated there with an honours arts degree.  Due to this long-standing relationship, I was initially apprehensive when the library offered me this summer position; in many ways I worried that much of my CV would be attached to one organization and therefore might raise questions when seen by future employers.  But after listening to a little advice from colleagues, I decided to take on the role since it is demonstrates in a positive light that an organization is pleased with my work and is excited to strengthen its relationship with me.  So we’ll see how all this pans out, but I’m confident it’ll be an exciting term.

But enough about me, and now more about the job.  This summer, I’m going to work with a small cadre of professional librarians in the information literacy department at Saint Mary’s.  Although IL at SMU is fairly small – there are only three staff members dedicated to the area (however, most librarians do take part in library and information instruction), they’ve got some great ideas kicking around that they’d like to put into action, especially since the library is finishing a physical expansion and the spirit of change is in the air. I’m going to have a big role in expanding the library’s use of LibGuides and will do a lot of work on web and document design. And this afternoon I started putting together some scripts and gathered the software needed to develop a bank of podcasts.  I may also broach the idea of developing and maintaining a Twitter account for the library, but this may be better served by their folk in promotional services, especially since my contract ends in September.

Anyway, as I walked home from my first day on the job, I began to think about how so many parts of information literacy has to do with promotions and outreach.  Of course, there is always the mundane taskwork to complete, from statistical analysis (this was also part of day one) to committee work to marking coursebooks.  Regardless, those of us (and dare I count myself as part of that ‘us’) in information literacy constantly have to promote ourselves and make ourselves known, not only to the students but to the faculty as well.  That’s not to say that we should give up the steak in favour of the sizzle, but it is to again put forward the need to have a least a small understanding of marketing if the library’s information literacy services to be rendered are ever to be found by the its market – the students.

LIS Schooling: Lessons Learned and Affirmed

Oh my, how has time passed. Like any good blog, this site has been built with one cup of best intentions and two cups of procrastination. The programme at SIM and life in general has kept me busier than I expected, so it has been difficult to do more than log in to check my site stats from time to time. The nasty throat infection and chest cold that attacked my person in late September did little to help the situation, I might add.

One month into the MLIS programme at Dal, I can perhaps look back and determine if there has been anything learned or confirmed about librarianship. This list is short and general in nature, but I’ve constructed it that way since, (1) shorter blog posts are more readable than longer posts, and (2), one month is hardly enough time to thoroughly analyze a brand new programme and culture, so it would be best to paint with broad strokes on this subject:

1. The study of management is vital to the future of librarianship.

This is a lesson which was learned within the first few days of the Fall term. Dalhousie offers its MLIS within the Faculty of Management, and there are several required courses that are firmly rooted in the cultural sphere of management instead of IS. The School of Information Management believes it has a duty to tutor its students on the importance of management and leadership, as well as CLEP test prep, and I think it’s a wise policy. It’s safe to say that a plurality of this year’s new students have no schooling in management. It’s also safe to suggest that many people in the programme have more experience being managed as opposed to managing. Therefore, nearly one half of the courses that first year SIM students take in the first term deal with organizational behaviour and project management as opposed to cataloguing or reference work. This is not to suggest that traditional librarianship courses are given short shrift. Rather, there is a common understanding in SIM that its graduates, as professional librarians and information professionals, must be prepared to work with and lead others in projects, on budgets, and toward common goals or objectives. No man is an island, and no library or organization is devoid of people. Management is not a bad word, but a set of necessary skills everyone should be adept with.

(Interestingly, Meredith Farkas noted the same thing after considering the results of a recent survey on LIS schooling. The call for more management skills is hardly new, but it apparently continues to be given short shrift. I’m fairly happy, however, that my school responded to this issue long ago.)

2. Technology is vital, but technology does not trump service.

Library 2.0, Web 2.0, People 2.0, Two 2.0. We can ponder and praise the rise of interactive and user-friendly technologies such as blogging software, social networking tools, twitters, podcasts and whatever might come next, but none of these can replace the service aspect of the profession. The best part of my week doesn’t occur when I’m checking one of many portable devices for the most recent news, but instead when take my shift at my alma mater’s reference desk. A certain thrill that is equal parts fear of, excitement for, and anticipation of the unknown comes over me when a student asks for help acquiring information in a field I’m not familiar with. Librarianship service is a process, a discovery of information mediated through the librarian. Note that I am not saying “filtered” or “accessed” there. When I say “mediated”, I mean to suggest that we are there to guide some one toward the information they are looking for. There is no controlling of information or gatekeeping. Rather, we are there to show some one the route and help them get to where they’re going so that hopefully they can get there on their own in the future. This human component can’t ever be overlooked.

(This is a belief I’ve long held. All of my experience in academics long ago taught me the importance of leading the horse to drink, so to speak.)

3. Professional librarians and library technicians can, and should work together.

When I work at the reference desk, I sit as either an “MLIS student” or a “Professional Librarian in training”. I work alongside both professional librarians and library technicians at the desk, and they are both equally capable of being the mediatory I mentioned above. One month into my professional training, however, I’ve encountered both the understanding that professional librarians and library technicians can work together as well as the belief that “library technicians are similar but different”. Yes, a library technician may be “similar but different” (whatever that means), but that doesn’t mean they should be valued any less than any of our other colleagues. The library at Saint Mary’s University appears to break down these artificial barriers, and I hope most other organizations try to do the same. I’d prefer to work for an organization that values what differences in people, and works with them to make the most of their own skills and goals. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking. Or perhaps that’s a simple goal that could be put into place with relative ease elsewhere.

Memory Banks. Or: Why I’m Here

I’ve been revising and editing this post for several days now.  It has shifted back and forth from its original faux-flowery-rhetoric to become a “mission statement”, but has more or less developed into a middle-of-the-road affirmation of sorts.  On the one hand, one could say it declares to the world what I’m interested in and why ‘m interested in it.  On the other, it might be a sideways declaration to myself that interests such as these are in fact interesting and thought-provoking in their own right.

I’ve been interested in the plastic, unreliable nature of memory for several years now.  Our ability to think, remember, and forget has always been a bit of a secondary curiosity throughout my academic career, but it began to hog the limelight in the last year of my BA when I was researching in one course early modern conceptions of memory and mnemonic devices, and in another course the unreliable, ahistorical, and permeable nature of memory – as evidenced in so much post-modern and sci-fi literature.  Memory and the post-modern condition became my little pet projects for a good eighteen months or so, since these themes carried over into term papers I wrote when I began my MA.  To a certain degree, they both remain threads that tie my thoughts together (or loosen them).

Somewhere along the way, I became intrigued with the concept of the mind as a mental storehouse.  There is a nice little metaphor of this in the second book of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, where Guyon, the hero, makes his way with Arthur through a castle which is an allegorical structure of the mind and body.  Guyon eventually encounters three wise old sages, who together the parts of the mind – foresight, advice and memory.  Memory sits in a room full of manuscripts, texts, scrolls and rolls, constantly recording that which the parts of the body encounter (or something to that effect).  Within an elegant twist of time, Spenser has Memory shift to a future-past tense in order recount the future-history of Arthur, Guyon, and Britain to the heroes and to the reader.  Beyond these particular details, however, lie Spenser’s important characterization of memory as a room full to the brim of records and books waiting to be accessed.  And these texts are a record not only of the person, but of the entire nation.

Independent of my time in “Faeryland”, I began to look upon the libraries I walked in and researched in for so long as similar physical storehouses of cultural and literary memory.  The books we look for in the stacks of our libraries are simple remembrances to be reconsidered whenever our society looks to recall that knowledge.  The setting of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient reinforced this idea with a poetic polish and rhetorical flourish I could only dream of: the text, we recall, is set predominantly in the bombed shell of a house.  Its characters read the books in the house’s library, take on the characteristics of these characters, and even rebuild the house from the books themselves.  Important to the plot is the Patient’s own journal, a palimpsest of excerpts, pages, notes and remembrances from other books and from his own travails.  Ondaatje created characters and settings that are archives of other people and of other settings; reading his text was akin to adding kindle to the idea in my own mind of people and places as their own sites of memory.

So it is then that I find myself espousing the metaphor of the archive as our storehouse of thoughts and remembrances.  Although  this archive-as-memory concept wasn’t my main motivation to enroll in an MLIS programme, and I understand that the courses I will eventually take in Archiving will likely be more practical in nature, I’m allowing myself to hold onto this metaphor because it keeps in mind many of the larger cultural and theoretical issues that drive my person.  The profound changes in librarianship and in the physical design of libraries in the past twenty years demand that we reconsider the notion of the archive as the site of cultural memory.  On the one hand, open libraries are making access to this memory easier and more accessible; on the other, the digitization of so much information is potentially filling our minds with too much knowledge (some of it potentially misleading) to sift through.  These are only two considerations within in a host of others, of course.  As public spaces, archives and libraries are in many ways contested sites of power, authority and legitimacy.  What is entered into the archive, by which mandate and under which funding agreement, for instance, can severely affect that which we choose, or even persuaded to remember.

I’m not going to speak exclusively to these concerns in this blog, and I’m certainly not going to limit myself to archiving and memory.  But I think that for at least the next little while, until I reconcile some of the arguments being teased out in my own mind or until I move on to another interesting subject, that these issues will often be brought to the fore on this particular site.  (We’ll see..)