Lately, the Gutenberg Press has been on my mind a lot. It has been for the last couple of years. Evelyn (Evie), a main character from the 1999 movie The Mummy, played by Rachel Weisz, is often there, too. Sometimes Evie is working the Press. But let me go back a few years.
I read Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise back in December 2016. It was a dark time for many of us (but it produced a lot of classic memes). I was casting about for a coping method for… well, for 2016. (By the way, I still haven’t found a good coping method, so if you have one that works, let me know!) The introduction to Silver’s book was so good that I almost didn’t read anything after it. I kept rereading the introduction. It was a mantra and prayer that helped me take baby steps forward.
Silver discussed how the invention of the Gutenberg Press in the 1450s changed life, changed the way people thought about life. The tsunami of information was almost too much for us; wars broke out when different opinions and heretical thoughts spread like wildfire, and these wars lasted for decades – or centuries. This state of affairs continued until we wound up with peer reviewed journals, the scientific method, and the card catalog. Silver was relating this narrative specifically to the data deluge we are experiencing in the present. But he also described how the Internet has, of course, changed information flow, just like the Press. Often it feels like we are desperately trying to keep up with all of the information, let alone discover if it’s true, accurate, or worthy of our attention.
When I read The Signal and the Noise, the book was already 4 years old. Published in 2012, Silver couldn’t have predicted how Russia was going to influence the 2016 elections using the information flows that have so radically infiltrated our lives and our thinking. Could he have predicted then that most of our news came to us through Facebook feeds, that a foreign country could use that to their own ends? Maybe – he is a wizard with data, after all. Regardless, his descriptions of events surrounding the Press gave me solace. We had, in fact, made it through the great social upheaval that came with the Press. (If you are looking for an encouraging read on the flow of information throughout history, check out Ann Blair; she’s written a few articles on the topic, but this is one of my favorites). If they could do it then, surely we can do it today.
I was just starting my schooling in 2016. Now, as I’m entering my last year, I’m still thinking about the Press. Looking back, I wish I had kept a running dialog of my thought process; it has changed and evolved, circled around itself and formed knots that drag me around by the ankles. But the one thing that I took great hope in then, and still take great hope in today, is that I am entering a profession that stands squarely in the face of this information onslaught and doesn’t flinch. We are “Information Professionals”!
This is about the time that Evie enters the thought process.
There is a fantastic homage to Weisz’s character on a fellow library blog. She is, after all, a strong, bold, brave woman surrounded by men, and she not only holds her own but outshines them all, intellectually and physically. I loved her character in high school. One of the main reasons for me wanting to be a librarian was because of her. This may be an embarrassing admission to some, but, let’s face it, our heroes are now on the silver screen, and heros lead us to our careers. I wish I had a count of the number of times her smiling face proudly proclaims “I… am a librarian!” in my mind.
While that confession may have been mildly embarrassing, the one that truly hurts me is the number of times that I have said to myself “I have no idea what I’m doing.” There have been countless occasions when I have thought to myself “There is just too much information. I can’t possibly know it all. How is it possible to help patrons if I can’t even help myself?” Library school has been like that for me. It’s been a wild race to cram as much into my brain about our profession, about information resources, about ethics and concerns, and it never, ever seems to be enough. And then I stand in front of a student asking about our databases and think “Oh. No. I will never be a librarian.” Evie doesn’t come out for a bow until that student has gone away with a ton of resources, a path forward, and a smile – in other words, when I have done my job well.
This is the crux of the issue. What exactly is an “Information Professional” in the face of the Internet? How can we do our jobs while navigating a torrential, zombiesque mountain of information? At this moment, we are perfectly poised to make a profound impact on information flow. That is exciting! And daunting. There is so much work that we can and are doing, I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it. Traditionally, librarians have been the purveyor of of tools; we didn’t invent the card catalog (scientists did) but we sure knew how to use it and pass that information on! But now we know enough and are tied in closely enough with our institutions to also be inventors.
Children growing up with all of this information will be different. They won’t learn the same way. And while they may still need a librarian’s guidance in finding reliable information, they will be more capable of handling the information that is thrown at them than those who came before. We are currently paving the information highway. They will be able to drive on it – hopefully using the children of the tools we create. It took me a long time to realize (though people had told me time and again) that librarianship is not about facts, about knowing everything about libraries and information. It’s about a way of thinking about information, a way of processing it, and organizing it, and pulling it together.
This way of thinking is the best resource that librarians will give to their patrons, and it has been since Socrates. Socrates hated writing. He was afraid of it because he thought it dulled memory – his version of pen and paper. He railed against its use, much as people rail against the Internet and computers today. People freaked out because they weren’t prepared to handle writing. But writing changed the world. People freaked out again when the amount of writing overwhelmed them; reference books helped calm their fears. So, too, today, people can not handle the Internet, the crushing wave of information. Even I, a consummate information professional, freak out with the shear amount of information surrounding me. But we have what (most) others before us did not have. We have librarians.