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Libraries and Jim Rice

Is anyone’s reaction to a sentence like the first sentence of Restore the noble purpose of libraries, a column by William H. Wisner in the Christian Science Monitor, to say once?

That sentence, bye-the-bye, is Libraries were once a sacred secular space of silence and reverence—a place where one automatically lowered one’s voice. And yes, they were that once. Perhaps twice. And you know that a column that starts like that is going to have a bunch of other really mockable stuff, too, such as Scholars are made through the quiet study of one chapter at a time and …librarians put themselves out of business one printout at a time… and, well, you get the idea. Or if you don’t, click on through and read (as they say) the whole thing.

Now, when I happen across such obviously mockable stuff as Mr. Wisner’s column, I try to dig under the mockability to get to the actual argument, because sometimes the argument is really good (or at any rate, the author is on the Side of the Good Guys) and I feel I can usefully restate the point with my own style of mockability. Or, you know, sometimes the author is Wrong Wrong Wrong, and I can make a really good point of my own in opposition to the point under the stuff about librarians thumbing a ride into history.

In this case, however, I am stumped. I have no idea what Mr. Wisner’s point is. I mean:

  • Good Stuff: Silence, the Enlightenment, knowledge, patience, television, the word librarian, the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English, reciting whole books from memory, free coffee, humor, humanity, art exhibits (on shoestring budgets), Mr. Wisner’s erudite and presumably hushed conversation.
  • Bad Stuff: Noise of any kind (except Mr. Wisner’s erudite and presumably hushed conversation, printers (mentioned four times), information, technology, library schools, the phrase “information scientists”, the Internet, videos, cellphones, postmodernism, giant Ponzi schemes.
  • Uncommitted: those little USB drives, tea, the Tale of the Wife of Bath (in modern English), database concordances, smaller Ponzi schemes, Twitter.

Pretty much, the whole article is I like the stuff I like, and I don’t like to add paper to the printers.

No, seriously, what does it mean to say that Information on the Internet may come across as authoritative, but much of it is one giant Ponzi scheme, especially in the hands of the young…? In what sense a Ponzi scheme? I mean, I think he’s talking about Wikipedia, but the only sense in which that’s a Ponzi scheme is that people who came along early contributed information, and people who came along later… read that information? If the defining feature of a Ponzi scheme is that it keeps going by using latecomers’ investments to pay off early investors and create a façade of profit, then who are the early investors, who the latecomers, what’s the profit, who is leaving on a virtual boat with virtual sackloads of virtual money? Not that Ponzi got away with the dough, but if it’s a Ponzi scheme, then somebody must be propping up something, right?

And there’s this: In some libraries today it is actually impossible to find any place quiet enough to simply read and study undisturbed. I’m sure this is true. I’m sure that the librarians regret that they can’t manage to keep some quiet areas. But (a) libraries largely do allow people to borrow a lot of material so they can take it away and find some other place to read and study undisturbed, (2) almost any library I have ever had any contact with has made serious efforts to provide some area for quiet study, and (iii) what the hell is so privileged about silence, anyhow? He really hocks about silence, and presents as self-evident that scholarship cannot exist without it. This is simply false. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! People are different, one to another, including Scholars, and that’s what makes the world interesting and fun.

And—this seems to really be the point of the thing—Mr. Wisner’s insists that there is an Ideal Library, and that libraries must hew to that idea or perish. Mr. Wisner seems to feel that all libraries should focus entirely on the needs of scholars, either scholars that exist or scholars in embryo, as it were. This is not just wrong, but crazy. There should be libraries that have scholarship as their main focus, and others that focus on other things: education, community service, entertainment, whatever. If you are going to argue that those shouldn’t exist, then, well, you have to make that argument. Actually, I think it’s harder to make the argument that there need to be libraries devoted to scholarship (by Mr. Wisner’s understanding of that term), or that those libraries should not, in their devotion to scholarship, accommodate themselves to other things.

Now, this is all here in the Tohu Bohu not only as an example of how I read stuff on the Internet (first: mock, second: attempt to understand, fifth: mock) but because another thing happened that happens to me a lot. I made a connection between two things I read on the same day that aren’t properly speaking related at all. This was one, and the other was a note by the great Joe Posnanski with A Thought About Jim Rice. Jim Rice, for those of y’all not interested in baseball, was a very good player who has recently been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Mr. Posnanski has spent a lot of pixels (and some ink) arguing that Jim Rice was not a Hall of Fame player, and did not vote for the fellow (he gets a vote, so it matters somewhat). But when the man was given his plaque and put in the Hall, Mr. Posnanski enjoyed it. As a fan. And his post, I think, is about that tension between being a fan and wanting to see Jim Rice in the Hall of Fame, and being an analyst and deciding whether Jim Rice belongs in the Hall of Fame.

You see the connection?

Here’s where I saw it: Mr. Posnanski is able to distinguish between what he personally likes and what is measurably good. Now, that is much easier to do in baseball, where everything is written down. And there are definitions of good, there, that do mean something different from what an individual personally likes. And you can be a big fan of a player, vastly enjoy watching the player, and even be thrilled by seeing their plaque in the Hall, without being able to argue that the plaque really belongs there.

I think Mr. Wisner is unable to distinguish between things he likes and things that are valuable. Or, perhaps, between claims that things are good because they give him pleasure (like the memory of Jim Rice at the plate or close reading in a silent room) and claims that things are good because of their utility to other people. The latter claim requires lots of evidence, but if you are going to tell people to pull the plugs on their printers and video machines or vote for (or against) a player’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame, you’ll need that evidence. And more—you need to be prepared for the evidence to come to the other conclusion, and then to argue that conclusion, even if it’s not the one you wanted.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


We must mock each other one column at a time, must we not?

After reading the column, one jumps to unkind and wholly unfounded assumptions about where Wisner stands on children's rooms.

Way late comment---

recently I came across people re-tweeting and blogging a headline about Sotomayor wanting to castrate white males, which was from a fake news site. When others questioned the sanity of believing she had ever said such a thing, at least one response was "google it! you'll see!" and indeed, the top ten hits on google were people reposting the FAKE NEWS as true, or with very subtle signals that it was humor. That's the internet as Ponzi scheme for information, I think---an apparently solid structure with nothing real behind it. I'd assume something like that---how information wins credibility through replication, regardless of source---is what Wisner means. But that's not Wikipedia, generally. It is human nature, though.

Oh, my goodness, that's what's going on—Mr. Wisner wrote Ponzi scheme when he meant pyramid scheme. The point is not the difference between early investors and late investors, the point is that the late investors are doing the work for the early investors.

Just to be clear: in a Ponzi scheme, one guy (let's call him Bernie Merdle) takes everybody's money, using the late investors' cash to provide illusory returns to the early investors. The distinguishing mark of a Ponzi scheme is a Bernie Merdle; all the cash goes to him, and very little of it comes out again. In a pyramid scheme, however, early investors make their money directly from late investors. Everybody makes a cut from the layer below them. There is probably a Bernie Merdle at the top of the heap getting the biggest cut, but the distinguishing mark of a pyramid scheme is that suckers sucker in suckers.

So, if you are giving your money to a top-level (fraudulent) money manager, that's a Ponzi scheme. If you are giving your money to your Aunt Edna, who is giving a cut to her hairdresser, who is giving a cut to her high school cheerleading coach, that's a pyramid scheme. But remember this very important point: you don't actually need to know the terminology. Hardly anybody does, and like knowing the difference between the pigeon drop and the switch, it's probably a sign of a misspent life. People use the terms interchangeably, if they aren't confidence trick nerds, and if I remembered that, I wouldn't have been so perplexed.

That said, Mr. Wisner is still utterly wrong about the information on the Internet being a giant pyramid scheme. People aren't recruiting each other to pass along bad information for a cut to the level above them. As a metaphor for explaining what's going on, it simply doesn't work. There is a fundamental difference between a bad investment and a fraud.

On the other hand, thanks for the head's-up about Justice Sotomayor. I'll probably miss those testicles, although, now that I think about it, I probably won't miss them much...


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