A Library’s Most Important Asset? The Librarians

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People can lose their life in a library. They ought to be warned.

— Saul Bellow

A few weeks ago while in Beantown, I slipped into the Boston Public Library to make a pit stop. When one is a tourist with a pea-sized bladder, knowing where to find clean public restrooms is a survival tactic. I am quite adept at this, though it does not appear to be a marketable talent. I guess I could develop an app that allows visitors to find the best restrooms, but that likely has already been done. And I have no idea how to create an app anyway.

The Boston Public Library’s main branch is in Copley Square on Boylston Street, right at the finish line for the Boston Marathon. Established in 1848, it was the first municipal library in the United States and remains the third-largest public library in the country, behind the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. The entry to the main building is stunning, a pair of majestic marble lions guarding the stairway. The lions are memorials to two Massachusetts regiments in the Civil War. On sunny days, golden light streams in from three windows beyond the stairwell. We were here on a sunny day.

I love libraries and librarians. If I could choose, I would spend my days conducting research in libraries and my nights writing about what I learned. I have to settle for researching when I can, writing as time permits while still making a living. No complaints. It’s generally inside work with air-conditioning and no heavy lifting.

To date, all I have done is admire the Boston library, wander around and use the pristine facilities. I have not been able to conjure up a reason to do research there, but I would not rule it out. A decade ago, I spent five days in the American Antiquarian Society in nearby Worcester, thumbing through old newspapers. That project is on the back burner but could reignite down the road.

Unsurprisingly, the role libraries play has changed with technology. They are now — especially university libraries — portals to vast amounts of information that used to only be accessible by flipping through card catalogs, taking down the call number and wandering through the stacks looking for a particular journal or book.

While in P-Town, Cape Cod, on the same trip, we stopped at the library to make a pit stop. (You see the pattern by now.) A handsome wooden cabinet with many drawers and brass handles was outside the basement restroom. “What’s that?” daughter Abbie asked. My Beautiful Mystery Companion and I explained it was a now-unused card catalog, that in the “old days” is how one located library materials. “That’s just messed-up,” she said.

The joys of being a dinosaur abound.

To be clear, I do not miss the days of card catalogs, though I take pride in my ability to navigate the Dewey Decimal System. I am just glad one can now, from the comfort of one’s own study, find out what is where, order material through inter-library loan if needed, or show up with the shoe-leather work complete, making it easy to find the material. The amount of journal articles scanned and put online increases at an exponential rate. A few days ago, a kind librarian here walked me through how to find articles through databases to which she showed me how to gain access. In an hour or so, I had downloaded a half-dozen pieces to help me write the next chapter of a book I’m trying to finish.

That is what librarians do, whether it is here in Longview, at universities I have attended or visited, at sites such as the National Archives, Library of Congress, Briscoe Center for American History, or Texas State Library. In more than 30 years of piddling and heading down research rabbit holes, librarians have invariably smiled and done their level best to help.

So tonight, thanks to help from the local librarian, I’ll spend a couple more hours searching databases for articles that explain what it was like to run a country newspaper in the 1940s. No doubt I’ll get distracted by a not-quite-related title that sounds interesting, head down a different rabbit hole for a bit.

That is part of the beauty of the chase.

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