New Breed Librarian was an amazing website published in 2001-2002. Every issue is worth reading. One essay to which I often return is by Bruce Jensen on librarians as the keepers of the long memory. Here are a few excerpts, but I commend to you the entire work.
The most radical idea in America, I've heard Utah Phillips say, is the long memory.
He means that if more of us had sharp recall and held grudges against our leaders, the whole rotten pyramid could come crashing down. Fanciful example: imagine what would happen if all of us suddenly remembered that our shortened 40-hour workweek with extra pay for overtime was not the fruit of corporate kindliness, but rather of organized fighting. We moderns can clock out at Miller Time thanks to the hard sacrifices of people whom HR professionals would condemn as "disgruntled:" nervy, balls-to-the-wall battlers who got together and complained hard and loudly. Asking for an eight-hour day got them screamed at, threatened, fired. Some of them, like the ones memorialized at the Haymarket Memorial in Chicago, died for the idea of Miller Time.......
Part of the reason you are so freaking important and, if you'll pardon the buzzword, heroic, Mister and Ms. NewBreed Librarian & all the Support Staff at Sea, is that you care for our memory. You keep it spry, busy, popping with new thoughts, and you work obsessively to make its components readily available - sometimes instantly - to the people who need it, whose lives it enriches. If "enriches" sounds stale, try this: Whose lives it makes tolerable, safer, funnier, more interesting, healthier, calmer, more productive, libidinous, spiritual, smarter, more amusing. Because if you think about it you'll admit that everyone who steps in your door or uses your website lives better than they would have without your efforts.Read the complete essay.
actually it is harder to read the whole essay..you have to go into the place it is archived (the link above). The photos are there, too.
VOLUME2 NUMBER1 ::: FEBRUARY 2002 :::
© Copyright 2001-2002, NewBreed Librarian. All rights reserved.
FEATURE ARTICLE ::: FEBRUARY 2002 :::
Keepers of the Long Memory: A Twisted Appreciation BRUCE JENSEN
Bruce Jensen recently completed graduate study at the University of California, Los Angeles in a joint MA program embracing Information Studies and Latin American Studies. He has worked in public libraries in the US and Mexico, and is moderator of the Spanish in our Libraries (SOL) mailing list and proprietor of the PLUS (Public Libraries using Spanish) web site. He taught ESL for six years, working with immigrants, college students, and inmates in the US, Japan, and Mexico and has a pocketful of library cards from all those places...
The most radical idea in America, I've heard Utah Phillips say, is the long memory.
He means that if more of us had sharp recall and held grudges against our leaders, the whole rotten pyramid could come crashing down. Fanciful example: imagine what would happen if all of us suddenly remembered that our shortened 40-hour workweek with extra pay for overtime was not the fruit of corporate kindliness, but rather of organized fighting. We moderns can clock out at Miller Time thanks to the hard sacrifices of people whom HR professionals would condemn as "disgruntled:" nervy, balls-to-the-wall battlers who got together and complained hard and loudly. Asking for an eight-hour day got them screamed at, threatened, fired. Some of them, like the ones memorialized at the Haymarket Memorial in Chicago, died for the idea of Miller Time.
Stickier, more vigilant memories than ours would question why the rest of the world celebrates Labor Day on the May 1 anniversary of the big march that led to our eight-hour shift - while in the very country where that event happened, we don't. The accomplishments of organized labor aren't among the memories our bosses want us to keep, because memories like those would encourage more of us to organize. That's what's radical about the long memory.
"Now hang on just a minute, Mister Pinko!" I hear you saying, "I love my job and I never watch the clock! I'd gladly stay and keep our library open till the wee hours if they'd let me! Wouldn't matter if they chained me to the reference desk like a sweatshop seamstress!"
Stay with me a moment. This piece is a tribute to you. This isn't about labor issues; it's about memory.
An Exceptional, Extraordinary Year Pretty Much Like Any Other If the long memory is radical, mine's no threat to homeland security. Maybe you know that uneasy feeling. Of the last twelve months since NewBreed Librarian first lit up screens in libraries around the world, I'm hard pressed to remember many other events. A few stand out in my mind, naturally.
My dad died last year. Then my mom, too. I finished library school; it's not clear to me how. Twelve months ago, I was hobbling around with my broken leg and arm encased in braces, trying to get a job - even though I couldn't properly bathe or groom myself (just imagine). But damned if somebody didn't hire me as a librarian. One of those Internet librarians you've been hearing about, that whole NIFOC crowd, to be sure. But still...
Significant historical events of 2001, let's see...last January the country was cozying up to the notion of having a president who was never really elected. In February an earthquake rattled my hometown and terrified my mom. Her last earthquake, may she rest in peace. The ALA did elect its new president - this one, the kind of president who'd refuse to cross a picket line and chose to stand outside a fancy hotel with screaming union members while his peers inside sipped Chardonnay. And of course I remember a Tuesday morning in September.
You know: the moment when History, uh, Changed Forever, whatever that means; when America Lost Its Innocence. All of that.
I've come to believe that along with its other gruesome, heartbreaking consequences, 9/11 knocked the country silly, finished off its already damaged memory. The suspicion hatched that very day, while I listened, aghast, to spurious comparisons to Pearl Harbor. It deepened in weeks that followed as I was urged to loathe our evil, unidentifiable foes. And it was confirmed when I heard an expert suggest over the relatively reliable public radio airwaves that now, as never before, our country stood united in struggle.
Somehow it all resembled wholesale memory loss. Was this really the first time, or the most significant time, the country had faced enemies? I wasn't around during WWII, to take just one example, but I had to suspect that maybe there wasn't a historical first in every conceivable aspect of the aftermath of 9/11. Maybe.
It also crossed my mind, since I've lived in other lands and was closely touched by a disaster whose death toll exceeded that of the WTC attacks, that there have been bloody terrorist attacks, mass deaths of tens of thousands, acts of war, you name it, going on somewhere nearly every year now since - well, since as long as anyone can remember. But how long can we remember?
The Most Vicious of Maladies My mom had Alzheimer's, as did her sister and most of her brothers. Unless you've been close to someone who has it, you might not appreciate what a cruel disease it is. Cute little memory lapses, malapropisms, droll bloopers that you can laugh right off? Not on your life. Think in terms of forgetting how and where to move your foot in order to take a step, and of standing frozen on your walker for several minutes till you're trembling furiously and you scream that you just want to die. My mom did that, a lot.
Surely you've noticed those Alzheimer's villages springing up in the suburbs: entire housing complexes, whole neighborhoods, for folks with dementia and failed memories. It's a growth industry, kids, and you and I both know that it scares the shit out of us. Sure, we joke about "senior moments," but there's no disguising the terror lurking behind that kind of humor.
And when you have Alzheimer's a lot of the scared-shitless people around you are gently, or maliciously, making fun of your handicap. My mom knew damn well they were but there's not much she
could do because when she tried to spit out a sentence, after a half-dozen words she forgot where it was going.
Why You're My Hero As our lifespan lengthens, we Westerners grow more insecure than ever about memory.
Senior moments? A 2001 survey by IKEA revealed that U.S. adults report spending an average of 43 minutes per week searching for their TV's remote control (note that I massaged the data; the figures were seven minutes for women, one hour and twenty aggravating minutes for us fellas).
Note further how phrases like the one that introduced this section slide so trippingly off the terminal and sneak smoothly into your brainpan. I mean, really: How the hell would I know for sure about the ebbs and flows of memory insecurity since the dawn of Western civilization? I or anybody else? But what a seductive phrase, huh? Right up there with "Everything has changed in America," and "Never before has [fill in the blank] as in the days following the September 11 attacks."
Here's what I do know: A creature with a poor memory is a danger to itself and others. At best pathetic, but more likely threatening, unstable, in need of attentive care. Guy Pearce's character in the movie Memento is a lethal stooge in the hands of anyone crass enough to exploit his memory loss. He tattoos crucial bits of information on his body, for ready reference. Constantly unsure of his purpose and his next move, he sheds clothing, consults his fleshly factfile.
There's nothing the least bit charming or comic about a truly failing memory. Its effects are demeaning, humiliating, horrific. Now, extrapolate. Imagine a society that doesn't care to remember, that doesn't bother to keep its collective memory sharp. That prospect is just as unpleasant. What's more, the scale of vulnerabilities grows.
Part of the reason you are so freaking important and, if you'll pardon the buzzword, heroic, Mister and Ms. NewBreed Librarian & all the Support Staff at Sea, is that you care for our memory. You keep it spry, busy, popping with new thoughts, and you work obsessively to make its components readily available - sometimes instantly - to the people who need it, whose lives it enriches. If "enriches" sounds stale, try this: Whose lives it makes tolerable, safer, funnier, more interesting, healthier, calmer, more productive, libidinous, spiritual, smarter, more amusing. Because if you think about it you'll admit that everyone who steps in your door or uses your website lives better than they would have without your efforts.
Closet Social Workers - and Closet Mormons? It's simplistic to say that Alzheimer's erases memories. There's evidence that the memories still exist but the disease makes them inaccessible.
You know - like when the library's hours are incompatible with the schedules of local working people. Or when its valuable services are shyly (or slyly) underpromoted, hence unfamiliar. Or when policies and the shape of the collection keep certain people away and perpetuate Charlie Robinson's notorious boast that he wasn't any "closet social worker," like so many other misguided librarians: "We're middle class people serving the middle class." Which raises a question. What happens when only particular groups enjoy the privilege of having a memory? Look, Alzheimer's is a real monster, but at least it doesn't discriminate.
My dad was lucid to the end. His reliable memory became the one that mattered. He sometimes used it to try and spark flashes of recollection in my mom's mind. But as my dad lay dying, my sister was already busy with a revisionist history of the man's life. Going through his personal effects after his death, she convinced herself that the lifelong agnostic had somehow seen the light in his final days. She shares her faith with anyone who'll listen. Since I heard our dad damning his daughter's preachiness not three days before he died, I'm not among the listeners.
But her impulses aren't unusual. Librarians are well aware of the Mormon church's tremendous genealogical archives, which have their roots in its practice of "baptism of the dead." When sharp-eyed observers noticed that the church had managed to posthumously make Mormons of Freud, Einstein, and Anne Frank and her family, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and several rabbis jumped all over the LDS in 1995. Last year careful checking showed that such conversions were still going on.
Libraries can protect us from those whose self-interested agendas rest on falsity and rely on hazy memories. Willie Sutton robbed banks because "that's where the money is," (even if he wrote that he never said that) and serious researchers, concerned citizens, and hard-working social activists come to your libraries because that's where the facts are.
Libraries are much more than memory banks, of course. They exist because some of us closet social workers - or public service workers, if you like - are in love with the idea of a place whose services help us all to be more awake, more well-informed, more happy, connected, content, and entertained; more capable of solving problems and figuring things out; more human.
Even if the most significant event of the past year is crassly exploited by advertisers and newschannels and dealers in Chinese-made American flags, there are those among your colleagues whose response to the events is faithful to the mission of the librarian, the guardian of memories, the builder and rebuilder of communities. Think of those who collect and archive the debris, and of the NYPL's special programs, resource guides, and immediate branch openings.
The collections you nurture and maintain, the databases and websites and clipping files you build, the weblogs you author, the knowledge you share when you teach users, your community-building efforts - they all deepen and lengthen the memory.
Memory keeps us alive, allows us to thrive. Tending to it is a vital job. The long memory is a radical idea, despised by that old Antihero With a Thousand Logos who gets such a big kick out of pushing us around. The long memory is about the only thing we have that can, sometimes, monkeywrench the bastard. So keep an eye on it.
© Copyright 2002, Bruce Jensen. All rights reserved.