On users, now and future

Almost every morning I come in the west side of the building, the original entrance for Mullins Library. On the way to my office, I pass a travelling exhibition that is here for the spring semester – a display of books from the Remnant Trust. As a part of my service activities for the library, I volunteer to lend a hand when needed with the collection. There are several times during the week that patrons can request to see and handle the books, which is always a delight for me.

As I am a cataloger, my office is in an area that is generally off-limits to most library patrons: technical services. The term off-limits makes me cringe a bit, but there is very little of interest to most patrons in the technical services area – lots of cubicles, dot-matrix printers, and the occasional typewriter (including the one in my office). Oh, and several shelves full of bibliographies and cataloging reference books. The utilitarian look of this area is in contrast to the more welcoming look of the patron-centered areas, and so we see very few patrons amidst our technological antiquities.

Working with the patrons who request to see the Remnant Trust materials has been a welcome change for me. These patrons are a reminder to me that everyone in the library, even we metadata wizards in technical services, works to serve the needs of our users. For me, it’s an easy point to forget about, or neglect; so working with patrons from time to time has been a welcome change and reminder of the service-centric nature of our profession. Indeed, as a cataloger, working with and listening to patrons makes my work better as the metadata I create and use can be better tailored to our patrons based on their feedback.

Of course, the reference librarians and staff are the first point of contact for many library patrons. Their mastery of the resources in their libraries and collections makes them well-suited to serve users. Those of us behind the scenes serve users with the work we do in describing resources, acquiring new items, and providing access to items in our collections. However, librarians are also charged with the responsibility of providing for future patrons – collecting and preserving those things that might have significance for those that come after us. This can take many forms, but the books in the Remnant Trust exhibit would not exist if it were not for forward-thinking collectors and librarians.

In this spirit, I would like to leave you with a quote about the Boston Athenaeum, one that highlights our place in the continuum of the printed and written word:

I decided to make a last stop at the Boston Athenaeum, one of America’s great book places and home of a magnificent research library that itself has been a work in progress since 1807.

There, I not only turned up the three elegantly printed volumes on a remote shelf in a basement storeroom, but found them in remarkably pristine condition, with pages that had remained uncut, and presumably unread, after all this time. As I was signing the books out at the front desk – the Athenaeum did not yet use a scanning device to record loans to its members, although that quaint practice was about to change as well – I confirmed by the blank cards tucked inside the rear pastedowns my assumption that they were, in fact, leaving the library for the first time. “Eighty-one years,” I said aloud, shaking my head with amused gratitude. “You wonder who they bought these books for anyway.” James P. Feeney, the silver-haired circulation librarian who was checking me out, paused momentarily and fastened his unblinking eyes on mine. “We got them for you, Mr. Basbanes,” he replied evenly, and resumed his work.

There, I not only turned up the three elegantly printed volumes on a remote shelf in a basement storeroom, but found them in remarkably pristine condition, with pages that had remained uncut, and presumably unread, after all this time. As I was signing the books out at the front desk – the Athenaeum did not yet use a scanning device to record loans to its members, although that quaint practice was about to change as well – I confirmed by the blank cards tucked inside the rear pastedowns my assumption that they were, in fact, leaving the library for the first time. “Eighty-one years,” I said aloud, shaking my head with amused gratitude. “You wonder who they bought these books for anyway.” James P. Feeney, the silver-haired circulation librarian who was checking me out, paused momentarily and fastened his unblinking eyes on mine. “We got them for you, Mr. Basbanes,” he replied evenly, and resumed his work.

What Feeney did not say – what he did not have to say – was that the books had been set aside by his predecessors for the better part of a century on the off chance that one day somebody in need might want to see them. Fortunately, the fact that nobody had requested the titles before me was not considered sufficient grounds for discarding them, a practice employed by so many other libraries in these days of reduced storage space, stretched operating budgets, and shifting paradigms. It was as if the collective hands of Aristophanes of Byzantium, Petrarch, Robert Cotton, Christina of Sweden, Thomas Jefferson, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg – every temporary custodian of the world’s gathered wisdom – had reached out through the swirling eddy of the ages and places in my hands the precious gift of a book. It was an act of faith fulfilled, and we, their heirs, owe no less a compact to the readers of the third millennium.1

It is this faith that we take part in as librarians in any and all parts of the library: reference, administration, technical services, inter-library loan, and many others. The faith that we will do our utmost to serve our patrons both now and in centuries hence.

  1. Basbanes, Nicholas A. Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture. New York: HarperCollins, 2001, p. 8-9. []

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