It’s Thanksgiving in the USA, and for many of us it’s a tradition to name the things we’re grateful for. So today I want to name the group of people who are probably the most important part of academic work: librarians and archivists.
We live in an age of easy information. Reasonable people can and do disagree about the value of this easy information, and about the ethics of the paywalls and other gatekeeping that scholarly information is often kept behind, and many other issues involved in keeping and accessing information. But, if we are honest, I think we can all agree that librarians and archivists are doing the bulk of the work to keep information accessible and useful.
Information is useless without metadata of some kind. It is a LOT of labor to sort through it and put it in useful organization structures. These stalwart scholars (and they are scholars) not only have to account for the past and the present, but also anticipate future uses for things. Modern life depends intrinsically on good librarians and archivists.
And much of the labor that our precious librarians and archivists do is invisible to us. It’s easy to take for granted this labor when its fruits are so ubiquitous that we literally run our entire lives assuming they’ll be there for us at the touch of a button or the utterance of a word. I’m not a librarian or an archivist, of course, so there’s probably more labor that I can’t even see–but I do know this: when I’m looking for a source, 99.9% of the time, a librarian can find it for me, and they do so using a complex network built on the collective labor of librarians and archivists. For example, using Inter Library Loan, I’m able to sit at my computer, enter a simple web form, and often within 24 hours have the exact requested thing delivered straight to that computer. How that miracle doesn’t floor every researcher each time it’s enacted is beyond me–I’m always astonished.
I’m a trained researcher, with a lifetime of schooling to that end. But all my research skills depend on work of these excellent professionals; without a databases, without libraries, without archives, without all of these things, what could I even do?
Every time I enter keywords, someone had to create the system that recognizes that search, someone had to enter the keywords for each item. If my search results return a hundred thousand items–a staggering number (and probably a sign I need better search terms)–I can be confident that each of those hundred thousand items has passed through some librarian’s or archivist’s hands on its way into that database.
And the archivists, who take the strangest material and make it available for research: they, too, are infinitely indispensable in this academic enterprise. It is through their work that all the things that human activity generates can enter the public records to start with, on which we build our body of human knowledge.
And it isn’t only librarians and archivists at research institutions whose labor I’m thankful for. I acknowledge I don’t actually enter the public library near my house as often as I should (I love that it’s there, though! And I’d probably use it more often if I weren’t so deeply dependent on my academic library as well), but I use resources provided by that library regularly and constantly. It’s a center for the community, and a center for myself. The public library is one of our most precious public services, just as the academic library is the most critical foundation of all scholarly activity.
So, for Thanksgiving, I just want to say: I’m thankful for librarians and archivists. And you should be, too.