In the latest issue of the Blue & White, Carolyn Ruvkun hangs with her heroes, the bubbly bibliophiles of Columbia libraries.
“We have a responsibility to posterity,” explains Karen Green, Columbia Librarian for Medieval History and Graphic Novels. In their duty to capture history before it dissolves into the unrecorded past, Columbia’s librarians are entrusted with a treasure trove of extraordinary resources—a centuries-old Buddhist sutra, John James Audubon’s “Elephant” folio edition of the Birds of America, and the Shoah Foundation’s visual history archive containing 50,000 hours of video interviews with Holocaust survivors, just to name a few.
Columbia’s librarians are not so much the stereotyped, buttoned-up shushers as bubbly bibliophiles eager to share information with students spelunking in the stacks. Donna Reed may have played a pitiful librarian in It’s a Wonderful Life, but Batgirl worked as the head librarian at the Gotham City Library when she wasn’t fighting crime. Even the reckless romantic Casanova spent a decade working as a librarian for Count Waldstein.
Librarians in today’s digital age just don’t fit the old stereotypes. Facing an era exploding with new information in modern formats, they bring rich tradition—Melvil Dewey, founder of the Dewey decimal system, used to be our chief librarian. The first academic reference department and the first school of library service were founded here. Columbia is simply steeped in library history.
Columbia’s librarians are divided into three groups: access service librarians, technical service librarians, and public service librarians.
“The technical services guys you’ll never see,” jokes Green. Hidden underground on the elusive first floor of Butler, technical service librarians are responsible for processing, cataloging, and conservation. Most recently, conservators repaired architect Joseph Urban’s three-dimensional set design models—known as maquettes—for an exhibit on his theatrical work.
You’ve seen the access service and librarians, though. They’re the ones who work at the circulation desk, dole out fines, kick out the campers, and tell you there’s no lid on your coffee cup. “Access services deal with all the anger, and public services receive so much gratitude,” Green says. Bob Scott, Electronic Text Service Coordinator, adds: “You can always show someone angry something really neat and it’s a wonderful feeling.”
And rightly so. The public services librarians, responsible for reference, instruction and collection development, seem to know every book that enters Butler’s doors. These academic librarians are the gatekeepers of an information palace and are trained in helping students find precisely the books, journals, and other materials they need. Unlike many other offices around campus, Columbia has consistently increased the budget these librarians have to work with, which allows the librarians to secure new acquisitions and grow the collection. “We’re leaders among the Ivies,” Scott says proudly.
Cultivating the collection requires serious skill. All of the Columbia’s public service librarians have advanced scholarly degrees—masters’ degrees from library school and Ph.D.s in specific subject areas. “When Columbia opened the first academic reference department and the first school of library service, the thinking at the time was librarians working at universities need to be highly intelligent to help faculty with research,” explains Nancy Friedland, the librarian for Butler Media, Film Studies and Performing Arts, who also teaches reference classes.
The Columbia University School of Library Service, founded only a year after the establishment of the New York Public Library in 1886, marked the beginning of the professionalization of librarians. Just as public libraries had become established landmarks, academic libraries were now becoming more actively involved in their university community.
Dwindling enrollment and the tremendous need for space in Butler ultimately forced the School of Library Service to close in 1992, but its legacy lives on in different terms. Some library schools have dropped the name “service” for a more quantitative “science,” while others have ditched the “library” label altogether in favor of the broader term, “information.” “They’re ashamed of the word!” Green laments. These schools of “information science” integrate the vast world of the web into their curricula.
Yet, even with the advantages of technological information and the paper-saving benefits of e-books, Columbia’s librarians still passionately defend books. “It’s the smell,” five librarians explain at once. “You can’t curl up with a Kindle,” Michelle Chesner, Columbia’s first librarian for Jewish Studies, adds. More practically, Friedland explains, “you can still read a print book in a thousand years. There’s just no guarantee that we’ll be able to read all of these digital formats in even 50 years.”
Whether in digital or paper format, there is a magical quality in preserving the half-forgotten, bringing the dead back to life. Most of the public services librarians delightfully recall how they “fell into” their jobs. Having been very “library immersed” as a graduate student, Green had an epiphany: “I realized everything I loved about academia was in the library, and everything I hated about academia—the unstructured hours and publish-or-perish— wasn’t.”
Chesner tells an inspiring “straight from undergrad story.” While working in a rare book library, Chesner was tasked with identifying Hebrew books from the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Project for cataloguing. After World War II, the US army arrived in Germany to find warehouses of books taken from Jews— millions of Hebrew books without owners. The Jewish Cultural Reconstruction project aimed to return these books to their rightful owners and donate the rest to Jewish institutions, including the one where Chesner worked. She opened a recognizable title that would have been studied in a traditional eastern European yeshiva, and at the back of the book, she found the stamps of the particular institution the book had been in—the French Archives Nationale—and the Nazi eagle with a swastika, plus the manuscript notations of the original reader. “This is where you get to the past,” Chesner realized. “The book has the manuscript notes of the person who used it and the stamp of the person who grabbed it from his hands and threw it in a pile. You create a story and see how much books talk about and show that story of the people.”
Librarians, then, are the ambassadors of these personal narratives, inviting readers to stumble across these telling moments for themselves. Much of this guidance occurs in the reference interview, somewhat like a therapy session, when reference librarians steer patrons to the “a-ha!” moment. “The most exciting thing in the world about being a librarian is having somebody come up to you in tears because they can’t figure out what to do with whatever project and sending them away smiling,” says Green. “You can show someone how to find the information they need and that is just the most gratifying thing in the world.”
Surprisingly, Green’s favorite part of the library isn’t a book at all. It’s the mural in the Butler lobby that depicts the enlightened masses fighting off the demons of ignorance. Painted in the 1935 by the WPA when many artists were socialists, the mural features the masses holding only two tools, a hammer and a sickle. “‘Columbia’ looks like Cher,” Green notes. “I like a picture you can unpack.” Illuminating information, Columbia’s librarians guide students and faculty alike through the thicket of resources. They are at once organizing the muddled past and rocketing into the mad future.