Thursday, April 05, 2007

Libraries and Their Lurkers

I recently ran across a fascinating article, written by Librarian Chip Ward. Ward recently retired as the assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System. In his article, that is available here, Ward describes how public libraries have been impacted by recent policies concerning homeless persons and persons with mental illness. It offers an interesting perspective on the role and values of a modern public library and the issues they face. I strongly recommend reading this article.

The article also brings to mind a number of curious experiences that I had in libraries, when I was in grad school. The University I attended had an excellent library, with a large and diverse collection in philosophy and other subjects that were of interest to me. At least, this was the case, when I started graduate school. Then the library was a complete joy. Unfortunately, a series of cutbacks transformed the collection, as after a certain date, new books in many areas were simply not purchased. It was a real shame.

The philosophy part of the collection had a hitherto unknown danger associated with it, both before and after the cuts. The danger took the form of certain people.

I still vividly recall my first encounter with one of these individuals. I was in the stacks trying to track down a paper by Lewis Carroll (few people realise that Carroll made contributions in philosophy and logic, in addition to his other works). The philosophy stacks were very narrow and cramped. They could only be reached by climbing an equally narrow staircase. This gave these stacks a certain labyrinthine quality, that I rather enjoyed. However, the confined space meant that there was not enough room for two people to pass one another with ease. It was whilst in one of these confined spaces that I first came across a fellow I will call Richard.

Richard was not too tall and was slightly plump. He wore a respectable jacket and a tie. He had thin dark greying hair and a beard of a similar color. He was probably in his late fifties, or so. He generally had the look of a slightly bemused professor. This I discovered, was a good form of camouflage. It was not too uncommon to run into such individuals. Often they were visiting scholars, on sabbaticals making use of the extensive library we had at our disposal. I initially took Richard to a person such as this. Was I ever wrong!

It was not uncommon to pass a few words with a person one would meet in the stacks. Figuring out who would let the other pass made this something of a necessity. This was the method by which I was initially engaged in conversation by Richard. It was also not uncommon for people meeting like this to offer assistance to one another, when it came to locating volumes. Had Richard been looking for Synthese, or The Journal of Philosophical Logic, I would have been able to help him. Perhaps he might know where the volume I was searching for might be located? This was not what happened.

After a few pleasantries, Richard asked me where I was from and what I was studying. I guess it was pretty obvious that I was a fairly green graduate student, lost looking for a volume in an only vaguely familiar library. Thus, we got into what appeared a fairly reasonable conversation, for a few minutes. Then our chat took an odd term. Richard accused me of being a traitor to philosophy! My crime, it appeared was wearing a tee-shirt. Richard informed me that Bertrand Russell himself would have thrown me out of Cambridge for such a heinous crime.

I was getting a little uncomfortable with this turn of events. I protested that, as happened to be true, I had visited Cambridge quite recently and there seemed to be quite a few people in tee-shirts, including some philosophers that I knew. I did not also point out that Russell was dead, but could have. Richard though did not consider my objections in the slightest bit relevant. This made me realise that it was time to beat a hasty retreat. Lewis Carroll was going to have to wait.

When I got back to my department, I was feeling a little rattled by the whole experience. I mentioned my experience to a couple of people. They laughed and said "Ahh, so you have met Richard! He is tricky, because he sounds rational at first. Wait until you meet John." They apparently all knew Richard. I wish they had warned me.

After that, I learned to keep a sharp eye out for Richard. I also eventually met John. He was a very odd fellow indeed. He would come up with very bizarre locutions such as "...a parenthetical footnote...", should one ever get trapped into conversation.

Having read the comments of Chip Ward, referred to earlier in this post, I now realise that he is describing a fairly common phenomenon, although Richard and John were not homeless. They were just weird and lurked in the University library.

The CP

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