“If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.”
If you could live forever, would that change how you value life? The finite lifespan of mortals gives us, arguably, a greater appreciation and therefore use of the limited time we have. As someone closing in on fifty, with a clearly growing sense of temporal compression, I can definitely attest to the poignancy of an old adage about how each person has two lives, and the second one begins when we realize that we only have one.
What’s truly important to us is not always apparent. I don’t usually have to fret about being able to use all of my limbs or getting enough oxygen, which is a good thing, because having a roof over my head and whatnot allows me to focus on achieving more complex goals. However, enjoying the luxury of taking certain things for granted shouldn’t diminish our appreciation of them.
The problem is, we seem to equate scarcity with value. Just because something is difficult to obtain doesn’t make it worth getting, let alone better than the water that comes out of your tap, for example. People aren’t drawing guns on each other over Pokémon cards, in other words, because those pieces of cardboard have any intrinsic worth.
Technological discoveries have allowed us to accomplish many wonderful things, and as they become ubiquitous, those advancements are in a way underappreciated. For someone faced with such improvements in the stopgap methods to which they have added value, the allure of maintaining your stature as a gatekeeper or a guru, instead of say allowing for an app to take over doing your job, is understandable.
Even so, you would think that librarians, of all people, would be above cloak and dagger bullshit when it comes to sharing vs. hoarding information, or making improvements to the accessibility of their collections. I am not entirely selfless in that regard either, but I do at least believe in having open stacks and providing whatever tools we can to let people become autonomous researchers.
There are of course differing perspectives and priorities on the best way to serve library users. A library school faculty member once proudly proclaimed, in response to me expressing qualms about our chat queue becoming flooded by an observational reference assignment that charged students with making up questions to ask our staff, as well as those hackneyed stumpers, “I just think librarians should be helpful.”
How having our interns effectively complete their classmates’ homework for them actually aided those future librarians remains a mystery to me. As much as I derive joy from helping out others with their information needs, the real goal is developing enough of an intuitive and instructive system which allows for them to be able to help themselves, even if it would render my role in this process for the most part useless.
With age, I’ve shifted in my realization that what we leave behind is more important—or should be more important—than any sort of day-to-day minutiae. There are a lot of impediments to being a librarian nowadays. Technological limitations, capitalism, and now fascism all interfere with the open spread of knowledge. Scientific progress can handle the former, but greed and selfishness are harder to combat.
It’s worth understanding the root causes of these barriers so that we may more efficiently tear them down. G. K. Chesterton puts it nicely:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
If for nothing else than the sake of those who will follow us, we should minimally never be fans of the status quo whenever a better means is available. Otherwise, we might as well consider it our sole purpose in life, as the proverb says, to serve as an example for others on how not to act.