- The Scholar-Librarian: Books, Libraries, and the Visual Arts
Questions about the status of librarians have bedeviled the profession since the days of Melvil Dewey. In the 1970s academic librarians invested countless hours in debating whether they should have faculty status in their institutions. Bibliographic instruction and, more recently, information literacy programs have given librarians a teaching role, and librarians often teach courses in library and information science programs as adjunct professors. However, many would argue that such faculty ties are tenuous, in part because teaching by librarians does not always include scholarship in academic disciplines. In a new book about the scholar-librarian Richard Wendorf adds a personal perspective to the discussion.
Wendorf is a scholar of eighteenth-century literature, art, and printing. His book contains ten essays. He writes beautifully, and his essays about printing, fonts, and book collecting are particularly delightful. His essays about poetry, art, and visual arts have been published previously, but three essays about the connection between scholarship and librarianship are new.
The central issue of these essays—is it possible to be both a scholar and a librarian?—is not really a question for Wendorf. After serving as a faculty member and a dean he accepted the position of librarian at the Houghton Library at Harvard, and he now serves as the director and librarian of the Boston Athenaeum. He is clearly satisfied in his dual role as both scholar and librarian, but he seems overly eager to show that he is first and foremost a scholar and to demonstrate that a fine scholar is not diminishing himself by accepting a leadership role in a library.
One must wonder why such points are so important to Wendorf. His essays range from a discussion of his collecting Piranesi etchings, to a critique of Antonioni's Blow Up, to print styles in the eighteenth century, to a description of his days at the Houghton Library, which apparently were not very felicitous. The essays, though charming, do not seem to hang together, except for a subtle, critical undercurrent. Wendorf argues that scholars who are dedicated enough to toil in the library vineyards need protection from the bureaucratic, simplistic minds of library administrators.
Wendorf is a thoughtful essayist, but if that is his view, I wish he had told us more. Now that we are in the age of digital information we need the skills and knowledge of both scholars and librarians to put library resources on the Web in appropriate contexts for students, teachers, and others. I find myself hoping that Wendorf and his colleagues will find ways to bring their knowledge to the digital environment and to help encourage more full-fledged scholars to devote themselves to librarianship, as some academic libraries are trying to do through a program of library internships for new Ph.D.s.
How can more first-class scholars like Wendorf be encouraged to take up the challenges of digital-era librarianship? To imply that the biggest obstacle is the [End Page 519] small-mindedness of library administrators who just do not understand is not very helpful. Librarians are not always impressed with what scholars understand about libraries, either, but that is beside the point. The point is to do better in bridging gaps of understanding both ways. It is a pity that Wendorf does not use his own experience in both worlds to help us do that.