At the year’s end, I am thinking fondly of the humanities scholar’s best friend: the library. Scientists and social scientists and professional school scholars also use the library, but the humanist lives in and of the library. I was reminded of this crucial fact by reading Hunter Rawlings’ admirable keynote address delivered in October to the 151st membership meeting of the Association of Research Libraries, the umbrella organization for most North American university research libraries. Rawlings, a classicist turned university president turned classicist (ah, we have too few such!), spun off for the assembled librarians some important thoughts on “Information, Knowledge, Authority, and Democracy” in the Information Age.
For the moment, I want to notice only the concept of “authority,” for which libraries are crucial. Rawlings instructs us that the word is derived from the Latin actoritas, which means something like “authorization” in English (and is the source of our word “author”). He goes on to say that “In the realm of scholarship we speak of an “authority” on Plato or Shakespeare, or on government, by which we mean an expert whose knowledge is to be trusted as the best available on a given topic.” Until recently, such authority was collected in books and serials, which in turn were preserved and made accessible by libraries. The library, in short, in collaboration with scholars, was the accumulated depository of authority. It is, after all, the business of humanities scholars continually to question and add to our founts of authority. We are joined at the hip to libraries and archives.
For today I want to ignore the challenge to authority (and the library) posed by the World Wide Web and digital information, the world in which authority is hardest to establish and maintain –- except to say that it is the great libraries that are probably our best hope of maintaining the concept of authority in an age in which truth seems only a keystroke away. I think, by the way, that it is easy to make the case that we need librarians to mediate digital information for us. I want also, at least for today, to ignore the extent to which humanists have complexified the concept of authority in a generation-long outburst of postmodernist casting of doubt upon truth. My tribute for the new year is to the ancient institution that has so nobly served those of us who care about knowledge, and to the trained scholar-technicians who have so patiently created and sustained it.
Long live libraries, long live librarians, long live archivists! These days none of them can and should be taken for granted.
(Photo by Flickr user Superfem.)