Friday, September 30, 2016

A Trip to Library Heaven

I was a sophomore in college when I first got to go to the library at The Marine Biological Laboratory, in Woods Hole, MA.

 Note the capitals. The MBL is the first and foremost institute of marine biology in the US, and arguably the world. It 's only about an hour and 20 minutes' drive from my parents' house. My dad used to work next door, at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the foremost research facility for ocean sciences in the world. My brothers and sister all spent part of their childhood growing up on Cape Cod, a couple of miles from Woods Hole.  My dad got to live and work to develop and test ALVIN, and was part of the crew who recovered a missing Hydrogen bomb. I didn't even try to fill his shoes. I just dicked around with animals that taste good.
   I ended up working at the MBL for about a year and a half, myself. I published and contributed to others' publications while there, on some good and some seriously esoteric shit.

        My son will probably never experience a scientific research library, at least not in the way that my dad and I did. Going back and forth from the stacks to a card catalogue, getting creative with search terms and accidentally finding things related to whatever I was looking for... that sort of thing.
    A computerized search engine doesn't capture the smell of the card catalogue. That's part of the experience too.
 Oh, my kid does experience some things at the library. The infuriating approximations of the Dewey Decimal System. The heartbreak of not being able to find a book that is listed as being in a certain spot. The joy of finding it next shelf down and over one. The unintended discoveries. Those sorts of things still happen.
 To walk into the MBL library is to be underwhelmed. It's dark, spread out vertically rather than horizontally, (and at least it used to be) and ugly as shit as far as aesthetics go. It took several visits before I figured out how to find certain areas around corners and in alcoves and shit. While I'm not the type to feel reverence for the authors of great scientific works, I certainly was in awe of the collection of subject-matter mana from heaven all in one building.

       Things are a lot easier now, of course. You don't have to borrow a friend's car to drive to Bumfuck Massachusetts to learn about across-fiber patterns or chloride cell activation in order to not look like a retard when someone asks you a question. Google is a thing now. Granted, Google doesn't tell you much in detail about books written in 1898, one of which told me everything I needed to justify the methods I used to collect data on the very first paper I published, of which I was so very proud of the time, on density and reproductive potential assessments of sea urchin populations on certain ocean bottom types.  Sounds like it's out there, and in a way it was. My old roommate used to tell everyone that I spent my days measuring crab testicles. Still, the takeaway here is that the process of finding information led to me finding information I didn't even know I needed. THAT is less likely to happen when a stranger has indexed an online library catalogue using boolean search terms, modified SEO tactics and keywords for you, and you never have to learn how to get creative in seeking out related works.

 Oh, analogues exist, and I'm not saying that it's worse today than before. I realize that things are easier and probably better now, if slightly less random is a good thing, and I suppose it is. It's not like you can easily spend 6 hours at a library these days anyhow, not without the distractions of a phone and shit like that killing your focus.

 Online searching for scientific information is no panacea, from what I understand. Paywalls are EVERYWHERE, as people monetize academically obtuse minutia. Seriously, I was asked to pay to look at one of my own monographs on lobster navigation by smell when they're far from the source of the smell. Whoever thought they could make $10 by forcing someone to pay to read that on their PC has GOT to be disappointed with the take.

...well, now that the bread I have been working on has had time to rise, I'll be on my way. I'm making pita bread for the first time tonight as, 20 years from the memories I wrote about earlier, I sit on night watch at the HQ, far as hell from the budding, broke and enthusiastic marine biologist I once was.
     Got a cargo to load in a few hours.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I understand the longing for the library well. I had the pleasure of working in a great research library (literally working, as technical staff filing cards in the catalog). Did get to write my masters thesis there though. Now, all of my research is done on this stupid black box connected to the information super highway. Office library all but discontinued. Journals, are viewed only on-line. Books, all but non-existent. Too expensive. If only they looked at how much waste there is reprinting the same stuff over and over.