Library “Vanity Projects” and the Failure of Imagination

In ten years of teaching, I’ve only lost my cool in front of students once. I was giving a mini-lesson on research skills, and I mentioned that the students’ tuition dollars paid for the many resources in the library. In addition to books and databases and online subscriptions, I said, there were also highly trained subject librarians, folks who had graduate degrees in Library and Information Science.

“You need a Master’s degree to be a librarian?” one of the students scoffed. Several others laughed along sarcastically.

Those poor students. They had no idea what that snarky little comment would unleash. There were about 20 minutes left in class, and lesson plan be damned, I had some truth to share. I took a deep breath and let it fly: “Oh yes you do! In fact, there are librarians with PhDs! There are librarians who have spent YEARS mastering just a very small corner of what’s available to you!”

This was only the opening salvo. I proceeded to force them to throw random topics at me, and then we searched for them on Google and on the library web page, comparing the hundreds of thousands of results. Then I dove deep into the databases and made them read out loud the most obscure academic article titles I could find. I may have resorted to an iceberg cliché or two trying to impress upon them the difference between the books in the library and the resources available online. Finally, by way of conclusion, I started ranting about ALL THE KNOWLEDGE IN THE WORLD and how it would take hundreds of degrees to even begin to sort through it.

When time was up, they fled. Surely, I told myself, they were headed to the nearest subject librarian to apologize for their ignorance.

Last month, Greta van Susteren tweeted a link to a Yahoo article about the rising costs of higher education with the comment “Colleges should stop building vanity projects like huge libraries and billing students-full libraries are on our smartphones!”

I’m not against smartphones in the classroom. I encourage students in my classes to look up new vocab words, sync deadlines across their devices, and take pictures of things I’ve written on the board. Smartphones are delicious little devices with which you can happily waste your days, and supremely sophisticated tools whose full implications we have yet to comprehend.

They are not, however, any kind of substitute for an academic library. In fact, as Twitter user @rauchway pointed out, van Susteren’s own book is not accessible on smartphone, but it is in the stacks at his institution’s library.

When I was a kid, going to the library was the highlight of my week. I’d be so impatient to get in the stacks and see what I could discover that I once threw a tempter tantrum when my mom took a different route, because I was sure she was delaying us. Her response has become a bit of family lore: whenever I’m being particularly inflexible, I’m reminded that “there’s more than one way to get to the library.” I get it now, but at the time I could only conceive of one way. We had always done it that way, so that was it. I couldn’t imagine anything else.

This, I think, is what really bothers me about van Susteren’s, and my students’, attitude toward libraries. They can’t imagine that the world is big enough — that the sum of human knowledge is vast enough — to merit more than a quick Google search, or more than a bachelor’s degree. The sad thing about this is not that librarians don’t get the respect they deserve but that this mindset is a sign of a deeper problem: a failure of imagination.

The failure of imagination is a human condition, and we all have these instincts. If you’ve ever said “I’ve never heard of such a thing!” in astonishment then you’ve had a failure of imagination. After all, why should it be surprising in any way that there is a thing out there you haven’t heard of? Do we really think that in our 15 or 50 years on this earth, we’ve encountered all the things?

But it goes deeper than that. The sentiment underlying my students’ shock at the idea of librarians with Master’s degrees is that they had a mental image of what a librarian looks like: a sweet little lady who’s really good at alphabetizing and probably doesn’t get out much. They’ve had that image reinforced by numerous movies and TV shows and jokes, and they took it for truth. When I presented an alternative — the librarian as highly trained professional — they balked because their imaginations weren’t up to the task of shaking off all those images.

Take this one step further. If we can’t imagine a different kind of librarian, we’re taking our own perceptions as truth. If our own experience and limited understanding of the world is our standard for reality and accuracy, how can we cultivate empathy for people from different backgrounds?

Sometimes I fantasize about taking my academic friends to a convention of HVAC salespeople, and vice versa. (I have really fun fantasies.) I imagine the academics sitting in on a demonstration of the latest evaporative condensers and the salespeople sitting in on a panel about the marriage plot in Victorian fiction. Afterword, we’d all gather for a Happy Hour and shake our heads at each other, saying, “I’ve never heard of such things!” The real kicker here wouldn’t be the existence of things we’d never heard of, but the existence of whole industries and disciplines dedicated to things we haven’t heard of.

That’s why we need libraries, and why librarians are so highly trained. The world is so much wider and deeper than we can imagine, but librarians are trained to help us navigate. They know there’s always more than one way to get there.

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