“Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories.” – Laurie Anderson
SEPLA keynote Upper Merion Township Library King of Prussia PA October 17, 2008
We are the people who tell stories. Humans are the storytelling animal. We come together this morning with our stories, as they accompany us everywhere. I could begin by telling you the story of how I visited my 85-year-old mother this past weekend, or the story of my son and his cousin living in the same New York apartment building, or the story of how this week I had four deadlines as well as my teaching and I didn’t quite meet all of them.
Instead, I will begin by telling you a story from Hodja Nasruddin:
A man had offended the king, and was sentenced to death.
He fell to his knees before the king and implored, “Oh your majesty! Spare me but for one year, and I will teach your horse to talk!” The king was amazed, and granted his wish.
The man’s close friend and brother upbraided him, saying, “Why did you make such an absurd promise?”
The man shrugged and replied, “In a year, the king may die. In a year, I may die. In a year, the horse may talk!”
I love this story. I first heard it many years ago on WBAI-FM Pacifica radio, identified as a Sufi story. We tell it so often in my household that “the horse may talk” is a family tag line. I knew I wanted to tell you this story, but I also wanted to able to tell you where it came from, so I turned to my online buddies on various lists. It happened as usually happens around the technology campfire: the story may be a Sufi story, but it is also Italian and Indian. It was told on an old Masterpiece Theater series on televison. It is widespread enough to have its own Stith Thompson entry, that marvelous compilation of folktale types.
The performing, and performance, artist Laurie Anderson gave the name to this presentation. She said, “Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories.” Stories make us human, our lives are our stories. Technology is the source of light, warmth, and heat- our campfire.
It seems a hard thing to distract you from this bright morning, to have you turn your minds to my musings, but I have hope, that by the end, that horse may talk to all of us.
It does seem in our work lives that whatever particular thing we are trying to do has elements of teaching a horse to speak: can we really create a space for teens that they love, and that doesn’t make adult readers crazy? Can we find a way not to spend all of our budget on printer paper? What about cell phones? And laptops? And Facebook? Are we there yet? Are we anywhere yet?
Today I am going to talk to you in three part harmony: about stories, about technology, about change. The three strands of this talk are braided together in my own mind, and I hope by the end in yours, too. I will talk for about 40 minutes, and then I hope you will talk to me, and to each other, discussing some of the ideas that I have been stewing about. In teaching graduate classes I try to put ideas in my students’ heads that were not there before. If it is a good class, they put ideas in my head that weren’t there before, either. I am hoping that this audience, you and I, will work the same way, in both directions.
“Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories.” This connects the information people and the story people – a difference I hope to explore a little later. The social part of my personal work life is almost entirely constructed online via email and blogs. I have been working out of my home office for eleven years now. I have colleagues in California, in Australia, in Norway, in England, that I talk to every single day. That’s where I get my professional gossip, my water-cooler conversation, and my updates about what people are really asking for at the reference desk. No one can tell me to get a life: online is my life.
So you might understand that I am fiercely attached to technology. I teach online; I write on the computer; I research and think about stuff from my local public library’s tiny periodicals collection, from its online databases accessed there and at home, to research libraries, to the much-maligned but much cherished Wikipedia. Welcome to my life.
Do you folks remember how some of us hated answering machines? Then we didn’t want email. Then we didn’t want web sites. Soon we hated cell phones and the myriad small annoyances they bring with them. Right now, we seem to be hating MySpace and Facebook and fearing bloggers – some of us, at least. Where are we going with that? It is important to think about how we cannot practice our professional lives well without those things that some of us once hated.
Now I would like to read to you one of my favorite passages in all of library literature.
It comes from the May 15, 1924 issue of Library Journal, Helen E. Haines wrote about contemporary fiction – novels – in the library. “Librarians … seldom contemplate modern fiction with serenity. It offers constant problems and perplexities; and their attitude towards it is apt to be one of mingled resignation and severity… The most difficult phase of the problem is that represented by the reactions of … the readers—and their name is legion—who suffer from our national disease of regulatory and supervisory fever… all feel morally called upon to censor the novels in the public library – and if allowed to wreak their will unchecked the results would be both laughable and tragic…”
Even earlier, in a paper given at the Library Association meeting in London in 1889 and published in Library Journal the following year, T. Mason wrote that “this question of fiction has mainly been argued between those who consider all fiction foul or useless and those who see no harm in it at all.” Change the word fiction to the phrase “social networking” and you get a very up-to-the-minute picture.
Fiction – novels – popular literature – these are basics in the public library now. So are DVDs and audiobooks, although they too in their time were argued over, sometimes bitterly. We have a history. So we have done this before.
We always want new technology to be the same as what we already know. If you have ever seen a Gutenberg Bible, the first printed book in Europe, you know that with its beautiful black letters and illuminated initials it looks like a medieval manuscript. The reason people pursued the idea of moveable type is that they wanted to find a faster and cheaper way of producing books, and they wanted those books to resemble what they already had.
Librarians, historically, have been at the place where new formats and new technologies happen to people in their daily lives. We have a strong role in domesticating those technologies, too. Fiction became safer when you could take a novel home from the public library. We have a long history of learning as we go in mastering new technology, from the typewriter to the online public catalog to e-reference to Second Life. The important part to remember is that we librarians are both learning and doing, and that the job of connecting people to ideas is still very much ours. We know how to organize and how to search and how to be comfortable managing conflicting data, and if we are sometimes not entirely in command of the situation, we can take heart in the maxim attributed to race car driver Mario Andretti, “If you’re in control, you’re not going fast enough.”
I am on Facebook, and that’s a perfect example of personal and professional, information and story, where the horse does talk. I joined Facebook because a large group of my colleagues on the children’s literature discussion list, called child_lit, joined it. I adore that little “what are you doing right now?” query and I check it once a day to see what everyone’s doing and to post a sentence – sometimes a koan – of my own.
However, a lot of my nieces and nephews and younger cousins are also on Facebook, and I have friended them, too. So each morning, when I see what my colleagues are writing and teaching, I also learn that Vicky is following the Jonas Brothers and Joe is practicing the guitar. Facebook seems to me to be the small town of the internet, where everyone knows a little bit, or a lot, about everyone else.
I find this juxtaposition of my life as colleague and my life as auntie to be, well, very odd.
I teach children’s and young adult literature both online and in hybrid format, that is, mostly online but with a few live meetings in person on campus. Teaching online follows quite an ancient model. It struck me that the structure is more like the tutor model at Oxford University England than anything else. My students read several books a week and we gather at that technological campfire online and talk about what we have read, together, and respond to and argue with each other, just like students and fellows in the city of dreaming spires.
In wrestling with censorship and selection issues, my students argue the question, “At what age can I read anything I want? And who decides?” Sometimes that leads them to another, even deeper question. Why do we read? Why do writers write? Why do they write that way? We read for pleasure, for learning, to lose ourselves, to find ourselves. Writers write, more often than not it seems to me, to find out what they mean, to enable us, as Philip Pullman so aptly put it, to “enjoy life, or to endure it.”
We worry some about reading as a skill and a delight that people may be losing. I confess I don’t worry much about that, because stories are what makes us human and there have always been and will always be stories. It might be both instructive and delicious to think about two particular things in this context, an excerpt from Plato, and a video from YouTube.
Plato was concerned that the new-fangled idea of writing stuff down would dilute scholarship and make men lazy. (He wasn’t thinking about women at all.) True knowledge, of course, came from listening and hearing, getting the words straight from the philosopher’s mouth.
And so I quote from Socrates, as Plato said,
“…even the best of writings are but a reminiscence of what we know, and that only in principles of justice and goodness and nobility taught and communicated orally for the sake of instruction and graven in the soul, which is the true way of writing, is there clearness and perfection and seriousness…”
That view, of course, comes from Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Socrates and Phaedrus discourse on the unreliability of written text. It sounds so much like current discussions about scholarly verification, authentication, the reliability of Wikipedia, and other such concerns that I found it quite startling. To say nothing of how weird it is to see the written word seen as subversive and new-fangled.
An extremely funny video on YouTube (the URL is in your handout) shows one monk, the tech guy, coming to show another how to make this new technology, The Book, function. The monk wants his scroll back because he cannot make The Book work for him at all. Anyone who has ever been reduced to weepy frustration before the IT person will be both cheered and humbled. Writing and the codex book were indeed new technology once upon a time. It is good to remember that.
It is lovely to think of ourselves, library workers all, as living in a global village, but sometimes I think the library universe is more akin to the cantina at the Mos Eisley spaceport, the interspecies bar in the first Star Wars movie. That is an image of terrifying diversity in the pursuit, one imagines or hopes, of the same thing. Obiwan, the sage of the movie, describes the town to young Luke, the hero, as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.” “We must be cautious.” he adds. And we are rubbing elbows — and sometimes other, more intimate parts like our intellects or our iPhones — with people who call themselves librarians but who look and act mighty different from us.
Most of us are doing things in our professional lives that would have been unimaginable to the newly minted librarians we were when we started out, if we started out more than a decade ago. We need to hold on to that knowledge, for change is our only certainty. Let us make that a comfort, for if we are not changing, we are probably dead. And if we aren’t dead, we are victims of psychosclerosis: the hardening of the attitudes. Things change – they become more deeply what they are. Change is the story, and sometimes it is a change we can barely imagine – is that horse talking yet? That may or may not be Zen, but Plato and Helen Haines and the Hodja seem to be hinting that.
Which brings us to information people and story people. I have been reviewing books for many years, and my editor at Booklist, Bill Ott, likes to say that librarians are divided into information people and story people. Bill doesn’t say this, but I think he also means that younger librarians – those under 40 – are information people, and that we older types, boomers, somewhat more silvery and less pierced, are story people. We became librarians, he muses, because we loved stories, because we loved books. The librarians with tattoos, those who blog, those who make our MySpace pages and are not fazed by the third iteration of the online catalog and the billionth iteration of the library’s web presence – Bill calls them information people. They may just possibly terrify him.
They do not terrify me. I teach those folks. My online classes are filled with several generations of people. There are those my age, who read their first graphic novel in my class and who are on their third or fourth careers. There’s also the next generation or the one after that: students who grew up with Kiki’s Delivery Service and Totoro, with Pedro and Me and Ranma ½; who can parse every informational moment of the Heroes, Lost and of Buffy the Vampire Slayer universes. Occasionally, those generational attributes even overlap in the same student. The combination always makes for really lively online class discussion. It enriches our intellectual dialog, and the interaction certainly enriches the profession.
It is crucially, critically, vitally important that we not let there be a divide between information and story. While I have framed this in part as generational, it isn’t always. But it does illustrate the two ends of the profession. My old friend and colleague Jamie Larue, director of the Douglas Public Library in Castle Rock, Colorado, calls librarians “the keepers of the books, the answerers of questions, and the tellers of tales.” What I love about that definition is that encompasses both the story people and the information people without using either of those words. I believe that most librarians are at heart both information people and story people. Are you? Aren’t you?
Our job is to keep ideas and make them available. I take comfort from science fiction:
“Praise then darkness and Creation unfinished.”
That is a grace of invocation from the Handdara, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which is a key text in my professional and personal life. It comes from that famed speculative fiction writer, in a book over thirty years old. Her richly imagined universe, centered on a planet called Winter with very different concepts of gender, seemed to rearrange all my molecules. It forced me to think about what it would mean if light and dark were seen as partners, rather than opposites; what it would mean if making were a journey, not a destination.
What Le Guin’s words remind me of is how important it is to keep ideas that we do not comprehend, or believe in, or agree with; to keep them safe, and to keep them available. If librarians don’t do this, who will? There is no other profession enjoined to preserve and disseminate all the truths of humankind – that is our job.
If librarianship is the connecting of people to ideas – and I believe that is the truest definition of what we do – it is crucial to remember that we must keep and make available not just good ideas and noble ideas, but bad ideas and silly ideas and yes, even dangerous and wicked ideas.
We need to keep dangerous and wicked ideas alive: humankind must never forget that sometimes we have slaughtered our neighbors, lied to our children, studied hatred and turned it into legend. We must remember those things.
But we also need to remember that some ideas thought worthless today may turn out to be the bedrock of tomorrow’s truths. We need to keep the whole of human history ever before us, recalling that the right of women to vote was once considered an idea both silly and dangerous; that the idea of one human being owning another was once as much a part of daily life as getting up with the sun in the morning; and that freedom to worship the Divine in one’s own way was such a radical idea that people who believed in it had to found an entire new country – this country – to practice it.
Ursula Le Guin’s elegant prose constructed a universe unimaginably different from our own. But it is our task to imagine it. Morning and evening, we need to imagine a world where ideas of all kinds might display themselves to the scrutiny of study, to the chastening of wisdom and kindness, to the possibility of joy. We need to do our work in such a way as to make that happen.
We need to remind ourselves that it matters what we do. Our readers need to have available to them truth in all its myriad guises, light and dark, easy and difficult. If the core values of librarianship are access and service, we need to examine anew how we do what we do at the reference desk or in live Chat, at the computer terminal, at the faculty meeting, in the cataloging office or story hour room. It is that whole thing about change again. Nothing is as different from before as you think, and everything is. The world is always changing. And so are we. We need to ask, Who are we serving? Does it satisfy us? Does it satisfy them? Is it good work well done?
Finally, I always like to mention a few books that I think my audiences would enjoy. What fun is there being a librarian if you cannot recommend a few good books? Besides, I teach children’s literature, and that is where so much of the good stuff is, good stuff you don’t always get to read if you have become a grownup.
Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky. The Newbery winner is a truly amazing book: not only exquisitely written with a very clear sense of how children, and one particular child, view the world, especially the world of grownups. It is a story about what makes a family, and how we make the choices that create our selves. Treat yourself to this one.
On my personal Newbery list for this year is Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell. Every single word of this 176-page Vietnam era novel for young people is spare, perfect, inevitable. It has a brilliant first sentence and a heartbreaking last — the final scene is a jab to the heart.
The next time you need a bedtime picture book, please look at In a Blue Room, with perfect words by Jim Averbeck and perfect pictures by Tricia Tusa.
One last mention of a book for young people – teens, in this case,
Ann Bausum’s With Courage and Cloth: winning the fight for a woman’s right to vote. When I become empress of the world, I am going to require that every high school student and every teacher read this book. It is the story of the last twenty years of the woman suffrage movement, and it describes unflinchingly what it cost our foremothers to gain for us the right to vote. You will never ever not vote again.
Sometimes, I read books written for adults. Sometimes, I love them. Read Deborah Grabien’s Rock and Roll Never Forgets and Jenny Uglow’s Nature’s Engraver: a life of Thomas Bewick. Of the former, wrapped inside of a tightly wound murder mystery and some kick-ass writing is all the stuff you ever wanted to know about what it is like to be on the road with a rock and roll band: how they get from here to there, what it is like backstage, who gets in, who stays out, how the music feels — oh lordy, there is a lot about how it feels. In the Bewick biography, it seems only British writers manage that combination of erudition, grace, and scholarship that Jenny Uglow does.
Possibly my favorite book this year, though, actually came out last year: Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome: On twins, insomnia, and the biggest funeral in the history of the world. I love books that combine stories, as life always does. Here, Doerr writes in achingly beautiful prose about being the parent of fraternal twin boys; about how he and his wife raised them in their first year while he is a fellow at the American Academy in Rome. He also writes about writing, about reading Pliny (and Dante, and Keats), and about the city of Rome. It’s just luscious.
I am an information person and a story person. I strongly suggest that you are, too, no matter which half you think dominates. Technology is our campfire. Change is what happens: it is the only thing we can be certain that tomorrow will bring. And always, I hope and expect that the horse will talk.