Field of Science

A wake for scholarship

An emeritus professor has a small office across the hall, but declining health has kept him from using it very often these past couple of years, so he was asked to pack it in so that a new faculty member could have a more convenient office location for their teaching and research.  My colleague was never a favorite of mine, but he was a true scholar who read, read, and read.  Like all scholarly people he accumulated a quite a library of books and journals, and now no one wants them especially the journals (which in case you don't know weigh a ton).  If you can't find a repository for your library and you have no room for it at home, your only choice is to simply discard/recycle a career's worth of scholarly materials.  This is actually extremely sad to watch.  In our bygone era, the mark of a scholar, the evidence that you were a serious intellectual was the size of your personal library.  As my colleague put it, "I feel like I'm conducting a wake for scholarship."  You see these days journals are published electronically and your credentials are pdfs and ebooks, so your "library" is probably measured in kilobytes or gigabytes.  In the old days you would tell your department how many linear feet of book shelves you needed in your office.  Yes, it was meant to impress, but it was so you could unpack your boxes and have access to reference materials and all you need to teach and write.  One of the reasons for my sadness is that my time for such a down-sizing is not so far off.  TPP's library occupies more than 150 linear feet of shelf space and several large filing cabinets of scientific papers.  OK, half of this could be discarded without feeling much loss, but things then get tough.  Many useful books could be moved to the herbarium where a small reference collection is kept.  Some colleagues and students would like some of my books especially the classics like the 8 books by Darwin that are over 100 years old, no rare editions, but something about their age and look feels so Victorian it puts you in the right frame of mind.  The journals are really sad in come cases a over 50 volumes.  My younger colleagues think it quite quaint that someone still has journals, but what will go missing from their scholarly lives?  Curiosity always drove TPP to thumb through every one page by page reading the titles, abstracts and results, and you never knew what you would find interesting among the diverse research papers, and especially looking at the figures where you learn so much so quickly.  This is how you got new ideas.  My younger colleagues are more specialized with a narrower research focus, although we had narrow people too, but you never see all the other papers because you never see the whole issue.  You put a series of keywords into a search engine that then delivers just those items that fit.  The long term effect of narrower scholarship is hard to predict, and at times it is hard to express or document the value of knowing a little about a lot other than when an off-the-wall-crazy question or query about plants comes to our department, you know who gets the call.  Time now to get another dumpster for my colleague as they are too heavy for him to move.  Appropriately enough, the dumpsters are black. 

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