The Monitor

Mary Beaty, column editor

The Brontosaurus Meets the Millenium:
A Call for Information Advocacy

Mary Beaty

Librarians love to play millennial games. What was the state of the Ottoman Empire or the social status of Chinese women in A.D. 999? How does Western y2k fever relate to the Jewish Calendar? Why did St. Augustine force the Celtic church to adopt Gregorian Easter in the 9th century? Did the Mayans calculate decades?

Gosh darn it, we're GOOD at this sort of thing. Empowered to navigate the unending stream of history and confident in our ability to transcend our own temporal placement, we don virtual togas and breastplates of righteousness and sail forth mining the millennii for answers, feeling as comfortable in 2099 A.D. as in 649 B.C.E. Timelines R Us.

But hubris is punished in proportion to the offense. Despite our research skills we are far from omniscient, and it is well to remember that suspect data exists outside the Dewey numbers 001, 155 and 133. As we approach the calendar change to 2000 we must acknowledge that by their very nature our collections (and our classification schemes) are social and scientific time bombs. On a daily basis we knowingly collect, distribute and mediate misinformation -- whether garnered from books, out-of-date encyclopedias or suspect websites.

Consider the following examples.

Erratum: There are no more brontosaurii. There never were, apparently. Depending upon which resources you read, the brontosaurus was either a re-assembling faux pas created when the head of one dinosaur was placed on the body of another skeleton, or a mistaken rechristening of a previously identified apatosaurus. It is clear that henceforth (until otherwise instructed) the brontosaurus must be relegated to never-land and the apatosaurus must take its rightful place. What, you ask, are we to do with all the 568s? Not to mention the family Lazardo?

Conundrum: Pluto is not a real planet. This revelation has lead to protest songs and much scientific waffling. It's true the jury is still out, awaiting NASA's Pluto-Kuiper Express project, but it is quite probable we will discover Pluto is an ice mass in an irregular orbit and there are only eight planets in our solar system. Run, do not walk, and examine your 520s. Should we consign those lovely books about the nine planets to the booksale? Alas, poor Scorpios, their astrological sign may be ruled by a non-existent ice mass. Whither the astrology section? And what of the styrofoam solar system projects lurking in all the craft books?

Acknowledgments: Susan and Lucy, created in 1950, roam the sexist universe of Narnia like camp followers, picking up the wounded and deferring to Peter and Edmund. Also, Huck Finn's relationship with Jim is disturbing, Bishop's Chinese brothers wear pigtails and coolie caps and Weetzie Bat, Anastasia, Pippi and our beloved Madeline are dated constructs. No matter how elegant the package and how beloved the characters -- or perhaps because of these aesthetics -- it is important to remember that fiction preserves outdated socio-political constructs. This is highly uncomfortable accounting for those of us unwilling to balance the relationship between literary value and social evolution. What are we to do with books that we love which embed sociology we deplore?

We are too sanguine about our professional ability to keep an objective eye on our collections. Trends in science, sex and politics may seem easy to monitor (if we make it a priority) but social movements are more difficult, for we, too, are swept up in the change. My own most difficult censorship problems involved requests to withdraw Gene Zion's Dear Garbage Man because of the absence of recycling, Freddy the Pig because it mentions spanking, a long forgotten title about a rainy day on the seashore because it showed a little girl swimming without an adult, and a new book on breast feeding which took a lukewarm stance regarding demand-nursing. In each case, the user reached apoplectic heights of indignation because the offending "out-of-date" book was in common reach of the unprotected public.

I once dismissed such "hare-brained" requests (March Hare?) as mere political correctness campaigns. But aren't we the vox populi too? Our "professional" opinion may only be that - an opinion. We bought these books: we must take responsibility for their continued presence in our collections and our explication of their contents to our patrons. We must acknowledge the intransigence of our archive mentality. And simply assigning dated materials to an "historical collection" is philosophically bankrupt, permitting us to hide behind a non-interventionist policy.

New century, new policy: get off the fence. It is our obligation and our responsibility to intercede actively between the user and the book. If you choose to retain suspect paleontology, tell each user about the brontosaurus. Hand out C.S. Lewis with love but add a comment about Lucy and Susan "in the old days". If you think The Indian in the cupboard promulgates stereotypes about Aboriginal populations, say so. And if you keep Little Black Sambo and Epaminondas, paste an article about the historical controversy inside the cover and circulate it with Jerry Pinkney - adding your own opinion. Remember Ranganathan, and place the user first.

It's a matter of professionalism. We are librarians - not bookkeepers and accountants. We are information brokers, data-traders, and paradigm-miners - not stock clerks. We are scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, mentors, guides and teachers --not gatekeepers for misinformation. Let us act so. Librarians must evolve along with the brontosaurus.


Mary Beaty is busy evolving in Brooklyn. (Today's cultural hint for transplanted Canadians: in the Bronx, a depanneur is a bodega, i.e. where you buy beer on Sundays.)


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"The Brontosaurus meets the Millenium: a call for information literacy"
© Mary Beaty, 1999.
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