Through the Love of Libraries Comes the Power of Knowledge

September 30, 2011

By Dana Davis

new library furnitureI love to walk into libraries and book stores.  Granted, I’m a word nerd.  I more or less write for a living, and I love the printed word – being, shall we say, of a certain age.  I grew up spending summers in the Carnegie library in downtown Rome.  Now it’s a city administrative building, which I discovered on my return to Rome after 30 years away.  I can’t bring myself to walk in to see the changes there because the picture I have of it in my mind’s eye remains vivid, and I don’t want to lose that childhood snapshot.  The circulation desk towered just inside the front door, and as a child, I could barely reach the top to hand in my return books.

Of course, most of my time was spent in the children’s section downstairs, next to the meeting room where I also performed yearly as a participant in tedious piano recitals hosted by the blue-haired piano teacher Addie Lou Lay (a lovely lady, though I found the tint to her hair a bit off-putting).  I still remember the smell of aging paper and old binding adhesive, made even more pungent by the lack of air conditioning.  As I explored the stacks looking for Greek and Roman mythology, the odor seeped permanently into my pores.  That lower-level room presented me with such treasures as the Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows and an entire series of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew adventures.

Later I graduated to the adult stacks on the first floor, and I loved them just as well.  Of course, the reading became more serious, and for a teenager, more tedious.  We were forced to read the classics for summer reading.  During my middle-school years I turned up my nose at Dickens, who explored the darker, meaner aspects of 19th century England.  (In my 30s, however, I devoured most of the author’s novels, enjoying the descriptions of the era that Charles Dickens brought to life so vividly.)  At the time I thought of my teenaged self as a philosopher, a pompous and laughable image to be sure.  Now I simply seek out books that tell a good tale and express those stories through lyrical writing.  Maybe those recitals had more impact on me than I first thought, because I have always associated good writing with a certain musicality of language.

By my high-school years I was exploring (like all teenagers do) who I was and whom I wanted to emulate.  Ayn Rand fascinated me, much to my amusement now.  Dostoyevsky was troubling but exciting.  In our limited girls’ school world, we laughed at J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.  From that time I remembered only this: that one of the characters had zits that he squeezed in front of a dormitory mirror.  And, of course, that the book seemed incredibly racy for the time.

Imagine how appalled I was years later after rereading the book.  I had been asked by a journalist to write dual reviews for the Philadelphia Inquirer with my daughter, who was reading Catcher at school.  Rereading this classic saddened me.  Holden Caulfield, the teenaged protagonist who seemed so free and sophisticated when I was in the eighth grade, now struck me as frightened and alienated.  He needed a comforting and guiding adult in his life to deal with his brother’s death.  And I was angry: where were his wretched parents, and why couldn’t/didn’t they parent?  Their own grief hardly excused them from loving their son.  My sensitive daughter certainly got it.  I believe she was in the 10th grade.  Seeing what she wrote made me feel like I had been a particularly dense child.  At the age of 13 I completely failed to see the tragedy behind that book.

From Nostalgia to Now

But I digress.  Still, nostalgic meandering about great reads does demonstrate the power of books.  I see how they have formed me and channeled my thinking.  But oh how libraries, filled with an endless supply of fascinating reading, have changed.  So I must update my attitude about libraries in general.  Naturally, I lost my romance about them while in college.  They merely represented a quiet place to study or do research for the endless term papers we were required to produce.  And here, current students, is where you might marvel.

When we walked into the college library in the late 1960s/early 1970s – actually any college library anywhere, small or mammoth – the first thing we saw was the enormous card catalog.  We had to take notes, writing down all the likely sources we thought might be interesting and helpful references.  Sometimes, well mostly really, we had no idea where to start.  So naturally, we went straight to the reference librarian for the reference sources that would give us the best list of likely books on our topic.  Librarians then were equally as helpful as they are now.  They just didn’t have the resources at their fingertips to show us the hundreds of thousands of primary and secondary source materials available to us.  And quite frankly, we would have been overwhelmed if they had shown us such a wealth of options.

Technology, as it has in so many other fields, completely changed the reference game in college libraries.  Elijah Scott, director of libraries at Georgia Highlands, puts it rather dramatically: “Getting information from the Internet is like drinking from a fire hydrant, because the Web has provided an avalanche of information.  And some of it isn’t accurate.  So a big part of the way we help students is discerning what sources are the most factual and focused for their specific topic.”

Elijah Scott and GHC students

Elijah Scott and GHC students

Scott said the greatest change driven by technology is the way one searches for information.  Learning how to choose the key words and how to drill down for specific information are the knowledge tools that current librarians impart to students.  Without learning how to analyze and ask specific questions or request very specific vertical information, students could end up spending hours and hours sifting through an endless universe of sources that don’t provide the source material they need.

That’s why librarians in this digital age have also become teachers.  They no longer merely develop and maintain collections.  They are more crucial to student success on research papers than ever before.  In fact, some faculty members have begun working closely with the library to guide students in their research efforts.  That doesn’t mean that they spoon-feed them or do the research for them.  Rather, they work with the library to design the most appropriate bibliographic instruction.  For example, the instructor meets with the librarian regarding the subject matter of the class and the various permutations the resulting term papers can take.  The library schedules a time for students to come in and learn how to conduct a search in Galileo, the college’s online research tool, which drills down to the aspect of a subject those students want to work on.

Scott and his staff build a Web page customized to the assignment that guides students through the entire project, offering tips on which search engines might be best for various aspects of the subject matter.

But beware, students.  All these positive innovations come with a few caveats as well.  The most important of these is a warning about plagiarism.  No one can get to the college level without many lectures on what plagiarism is and why it is a cardinal sin in essay writing – or any other, for that matter  Stealing someone else’s thoughts and words without attribution demonstrates little imagination and no intellectual energy.  And these days faculty members have many tools to discover such acts, even with the millions of source documents available to students.  There’s a website for just about anything, and the most popular for uncovering this particular offense is  Sometimes students don’t mean to plagiarize, but they may inadvertently pick up phrases from the materials they have consulted as sources, so they need to pay particular attention when they’re writing to avoid accidental copying.

Trends in Reading

When asked whether he thought print books would become obsolete, Scott chuckled.  “Are books going away?” he said.  “Absolutely not.  At least, not any time soon.  Yes there have been major changes – publishers have gone out of business; major newspapers have folded; news is disseminated more diversely now, including mobile apps.  But there is simply too much information out there for everything to convert to digital files.  There are literally centuries of printed materials.  So I don’t believe we’ll ever completely do away with the printed word.”

As one who gets a heady sensation every time I experience the tactile joy of turning pages or feeling the leather binding and heavy linen paper of a classic novel, I am happy to hear it.  I embrace technology, and love the convenience of my Nook.  But for the full experience of a rainy afternoon in front of the fire reading a richly drawn story, nothing can improve upon printer’s ink on fine paper and the slow rustle of a turning page.

Forty Years Later, Librarian Talks History, Memories, Tomorrow

Russell Fulmer

Russell Fulmer

Russell Fulmer, assistant librarian on the Floyd campus, has quite happily wrapped up 40 years as a working librarian, but his trajectory wasn’t always certain.  When he entered college he thought he would enjoy a job with the Foreign Service, so he majored in European history and Russian and East European studies at Dickinson College.  Upon graduation in 1968 he enrolled at the University of Illinois, specializing in East European and Southeast European studies.  However, he became disillusioned with the program there.  He also discovered that the Foreign Service was as much of a good-old-boy network as it had ever been, and he would need strong contacts for an entrée to it.  He didn’t have the latter.

He had traveled home to Alabama to mull over his future after dropping out of the program at Illinois.  His parents, like concerned parents anywhere, were trying to help him find his way.  They introduced him to a friend at the University of Alabama Medical Center, thinking he might be interested in pursuing a career in the medical field.  U.A. was just about to open a library science school, and because Fulmer had worked during high school in his local library cataloging and repairing books, his contact thought he might be interested in looking into that field of study.

So he completed in one day what would be impossible in 2011. He enrolled in the program. He interviewed with the head of the program, who agreed he was the kind of student the school was looking for.    Even in 1971, however, he was required to present scores from the Graduate Record Exam or some other equivalent testing protocol that proved he was qualified for enrollment.  He had taken the GRE, but the program was beginning within the next few days and getting his GRE scores would take at least two weeks.  So the program director gave him the Miller Analogies Test, or MAT, on the spot as a substitute.   He scored highly on that test, and was therefore enrolled that day, just in time for courses to begin.

Shortly before he finished his course work in library science in 1971, the director of libraries at the university asked him to work at the University of Alabama library.  That was a lucky break because the new library science program he had just finished wasn’t yet accredited.  So the university delayed graduation until the program’s accreditation was granted, giving him his degree in 1972.  In fact, he was one of the first two students to complete the graduate program in library science at U.A.

Working at Alabama for several years gave Fulmer experience and sharpened his expertise in cataloging.  The older among us know that many years ago, printed material was cataloged using the Dewey Decimal system.  In the 1970s, libraries were changing from that system to the Library of Congress method of cataloging based on subject classification.  Broad subject areas were assigned a letter.  As Fulmer had taken a keen interest in cataloguing both in high school and college, he undertook much of this conversion.  He stayed with the University of Alabama for several years, but then took a better job with the Jackson, Mississippi Library System, where he served as head of technical services serving about a half of the state’s population.  While there he increased the system’s copies from about 400,000 to 1 million.  And cataloguing methodology continued to evolve.  He was in Mississippi when the first machine-readable records were made available.

After eight years in Mississippi, he traveled west in 1983 to work in the Colorado School of Mines as assistant director of the library for technical services.  During his tenure he was sent to South America to develop relationships with academic, engineering and mining representatives in Chile and Argentina.  He also gained entry to the national atomic energy commission in Argentina, where he developed a  network of energy contacts.  During those years, he also served on the board of the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries, or CARL, as its acronym was known.  CARL developed UnCover which was one of the forerunners of digital research methodologies used today.  For the first time, faculty and students could receive source articles nearly overnight.  The beginning of instant communication was at hand.

While Fulmer was in Colorado he was elected president of the Colorado Library Association and contributed professional services for the American Library Association.  But in 1994, his happy years in the Rockies came to an end when he was needed in Georgia after the death of both his father and brother.  He came back to the South to live in Rockmart, where he could help his sister-in-law and his brother’s children, and more efficiently undertake the task of executor of his father’s will.

As fate sometimes dictates, he ran into Exir Brennan, who headed the Floyd College learning support program and had graduated with him from Alabama when he got his library science degree.  And thus began his sojourn at Georgia Highlands College.

He joined the college in July of 1995 at an exciting time, because that fall Galileo was introduced.  Galileo is the current online research assistant, which is one part of the Georgia Interconnected Libraries.  GIL links all USG libraries together, allowing member libraries to borrow a book or get a periodical article sent to this library from another member.  It represented the coming of age of online library services.  Fulmer has stayed at GHC, and will finish his professional life here – he is only a few years away from retirement.

When asked what the most monumental change in libraries had been over the course of his long career, he didn’t hesitate: the way books are cataloged.  Again, technology has made its indelible mark on the profession.  When Fulmer started more than 40 years ago, he typed catalog records.  At Alabama he used huge copy machines to copy the many cards needed for a particular book.  In Jackson he entered information into a computer, and that information was sent by dedicated phone lines to a central office to be typed and returned as cards, pre-alphabetized for the catalog.  “Today, said Fulmer, “anyone can access information.  Through interlibrary loans, users can receive the most unlikely and rarest sources.  It’s extraordinary that I’ve seen such dramatic change, all because of evolving technology.”

Fulmer, like many librarians, is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge.  The GHC family has been made immensely richer because of his years here.  We’ll catalog him under I for invaluable.

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