Wednesday, 23 December 2009

"The study of everything."

Einstein said that “Intelligence is not the ability to store information, but to know where to find it.” The only way to find things effectively is to know a little about everything. How does one come to know a little about everything: study to be a librarian, apparently.

The Christmas break is usually a time for relaxation and contemplation: a thin sliver of freedom between the monolithic standard academic term-times. It’s a rare two to three week period where it is socially acceptable to stop rushing about for a while and catch up with work and leisure: to relish the break from routine and forget the wider context of life.

My Christmas break this year serves as a microcosm of the information professional’s life: engagement in extraordinarily diverse tasks each pulling in a completely different direction. Before January, I need to a write a business plan for a small shop, prepare a professional job application, formulate well-formed internet searches in the stilted Boolean language of information retrieval engines, and write an analysis of children’s fantasy literature. I have to be everything from a business manager to an English literature scholar.

Yet that is the nature of the information professional’s job. The different library workers I have talked to over the past six months all tend to agree on one thing: that nowadays librarians are expected to be all things to all people, providing instant information on any topic. Just as the Dewey Classification covers all human knowledge from computers to art, so too the librarian needs to know enough about every subject to be able to direct a user to the information sought. One moment they could be asked about Greek theology, the next about Coca Cola’s corporate mission statement. Thus librarians need to be polymaths: simultaneously technicians and academics, warriors and diplomats, learned and learner.

Although many complain about this, I embrace it. In school I was frustrated when Year 9 rolled around and students were required to choose specific subjects to continue studying. On to college and university, we were forced down ever narrower tracks to further specialisation until eventually graduates emerge blinking in the sunlight with a single career-defining specialism. I didn’t want to specialise. Why pick between Media Studies and History: why not do both? Why settle: why not strive for omniscience? I want to learn everything – to know a little bit about every subject rather than lots about a single subject. One of the reasons I studied Philosophy was because the subject is close to the ‘study of everything’: the dream of absolute consilience.

So here’s to librarianship: the profession where one actually does need to know a little about everything. And of course, where to find it.

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