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Vol. XI, no. 1

TCU Library Newsletter, Web Edition  

November, 1999

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A View Through the Transom
by Hugh Macdonald

     Larry McMurtry, in his latest book, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, exclaims on page 66:

Houston was my first city, my Alexandria my Paris, my Oxford. At last I was in a place where I could begin to read, and I did, in Rice's spacious open-stack library. I didn't know that I was going to be a writer, nor did I suspect that the contrast between old and new, province and capital, wild and settled would occupy me for most a writing life that has now passed the forty year mark. I will, in time, go into more detail about the wiggle of my reading, through lives and centuries; I will only record now that every time I stepped into the Rice library I felt a mingled sense of security and stimulation - a rightness of some sort. I felt that I had found my intellectual home. . .

McMurtry's sensations of discovery, adventure and of beginning were exactly those I recall experiencing upon my first visit to Yale's Sterling Library --not that I imagined then that I would become a librarian - in effect making my intellectual home my workplace as well. Are there, one wonders, still young people who have similar experiences once they have crossed the threshold of their first major library? While I hope so and while I would like to believe that books hold the promise of adventure and discovery for thousands of students today, it does seem that a great many are content to use the library as a path to enrichment, not of mind, but of their pockets and portfolios. This is due in great part to academic libraries having become much more than cold storage vaults for thought (to paraphrase Lord Samuel) or repositories of human imagination and memory. They are now conduits for information, both current and retrospective, but now provided in electronic formats which can be downloaded or copied instantaneously and conveniently and forwarded the world over. Of course one doesn't have to be in a library to access such information, but a good academic library has a staff to assist and advise researchers as well as other comforts.

So it is that librarians find themselves dealing with students who are intelligent, earnest and motivated seeking more marketing demographics or projections of commodity futures than understanding of Goethe- more data than wisdom. We librarians are responsive to this - cheerfully so. After all, it is our mission to serve the needs of our patrons. Not that being an information specialist is quite as satisfying as it once was to be a librarian. Nostalgia still overtakes me for the days when I was routinely asked to recommend poets or suggest a novel set in late 19th century Paris or advise on where to start reading in Emerson. Today's academic library could well be called, in Flip Wilson's wonderful phrase, "The Church of What's Happening Now." Constant changes, upgrades, new training and retraining, rapid obsolescence, new formats, vast new databases, and web sites that disappear over night - all this "happening" reflects the dynamic convergence of technologies and information economies in the library.

Our world today is so saturated with technology and information that many students are already overexposed by the time they reach campus and probably rather blase about their first visit to the library. But those of us who are still at heart librarians and book persons can be grateful that in the 1960's it was possible to enjoy intense and life-changing experiences in the library.


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