Lies and Untruths

Peter Gillette

I made an incredible discovery last year. It was an incredibly nerdy discovery, and it delighted me.
I discovered interlibrary loan. I used to simply craft my research and papers around whatever books we had, until I discovered that pretty much any book is gettable.
As great as any library is, though, I’m a bit old-fashioned. I hate reading text on computer screens. I can’t stand waiting for a book. In fact, my most successful research has come not from the books I’ve found through LUCIA, but from the books on the two or three shelves surrounding those books. Browsing is an unbelievably useful academic skill.
A couple weeks ago, I spent a day at some of the University of Texas’s many libraries. It was an earth-shattering experience to search a card catalog that contained, seemingly, everything. I actually did quite a bit of research there while I was ostensibly auditioning for the music school.
Now, UT has 50,000 students, many of them graduate or doctoral students. In case you’re counting, that’s 36 times as large as Lawrence’s all-undergraduate student body. But why not aim high?
Now, except for the lighting and the architecture – and those are huge exceptions – I love the Mudd. It served me very well during my first few years here because I took most of my classes from faculty who had been here for at least 20 years. Why is that? It is because the library is a reflection not just of librarians but also of faculty, who shape its materials according to their research needs and specialties.
As we ought to, we tend to think of our educational roles as personal and direct, forgetting the effect that our interests and pursuits have on future students and curricula.
That’s what, I think, is an unspoken strength of the fellows program. Guaranteeing a constant influx of specialized scholars who are still in the throes of creating the “monographs” and art of tomorrow ensures that our specialized materials stay reasonably accountable to the state of the art. A focus on culminating, graduate-level Lawrence student research accomplishes nearly as much.
When President Beck first came to town a couple years back, I remember hearing some haughty “literary” students grumble about “interdisciplinarity” just because someone whose advanced degree was in deciphering inscrutable dance scores rather than “books” or lab readouts would now be in charge. I thought about asking some of them to decode Nijinsky’s notation, and then I’d take their elitism seriously.
“Interdisciplinarity” of the individualized variety, though, is not a watering down but a honing in; not a move “in between” fields but a move through them. It assumes that the survey has been completed, that mastery can begin. And that means we must know much, much more.
I remember the first question I ever heard President Beck ask, before she was even president. It wasn’t about dining or residence halls, parking, or endowments. It was, quite simply, “How’s the library?