Ode to the Library

(from a scientist)
Happy birthday to the library, and heartfelt thanks to the hugely important people who have made this library a reality and this afternoon truly a celebration. Read at Centennial Library 3/12/98

Ten years for the library - built and finished just before I came. I wondered why everyone pointed out where the library was when I interviewed. During these 10 years I have often wished I could come here more often. The library is the heart of an academic institution. It is the repository of our stories, it is the river of all of our ideas, it is a place of discovery, of further mystery, and of connections.

In the past 10 years some parts of our lives have seen great changes. I still have the same car, but now I can communicate with anyone on the face of the earth this minute by email. Finding out whether my son handed in his homework still takes days, but I can know intimate details of strangers lives at the speed of light through the news and also,increasingly more significantly, through the web. In many disciplines such as computer sciences, chemistry, biology, and others we are seeing truly revolutionary changes - we know the DNA sequences for whole genomes but now we have to know how to put this information together so we can use it. This sudden and massive accumulation of information is out of scale with human experience, and requires the development of special disciplines simply to make the information useful - to improve the signal to noise ratio.

Just as these disciplines have undergone revolutionary changes, the nature of the library is also undergoing revolutionary changes now that are as significant as in Guttenberg's time. Then it was the change from oral history, story-telling to the printed word, now we are sending information at the speed of light that is stored not in books but on hard disks. We can only imagine what is next.

Despite these dramatic changes, the library has continued to serve our needs at every age. When I was a child, I went to my neighborhood library to read the great books. In high school, I used the library to write reports. In college, the library was a place to hide. I based my major on where I found myself in the library when I was feeling most lost - the poetry section. When I decided to become a scientist, libraries took on whole new meanings. Libraries became more than places to find out what people had done or said in the past, they became places to learn what people were doing now, ways of moving my mind to look this way and that way at life, the massive shoulders on which all of our careers - our scientific lives- are based.

In graduate school, I would go to the library just to look at the indexes of journals - they excited me. But things have changed and libraries, especially centennial library have not only participated in these changes in our lives, in many instances they led us to them. Over the past 10 years, we have shared sad times of deciding journals to cut. These difficult decisions were made as if we were family - with concern that disciplines that were in the minority at UNM would keep journals that were essential for them. We thought about each other. Which of us would feel less pain to lose this or that journal? What was fair? And when there were joyful things to share, we would share them together. I can remember when Diana Northup went through the halls saying we would get to try this new search vehicle for 6 months. After 6 months, for many of us, being cut off from this revolutionary tool was like giving up our first child, like trying to remember how to breathe. Scisearch forever changed our lives and Diana, Harry Lull, Johann and others made that possible.

To find support to buy Scisearch, as a team we launched a series of meetings, email requests, pilgrimages and, finally, together in a partnership with the library, departments, individual faculty and staff, and administrators we regained the use of this incredibly powerful library resource.

The library and its staff are the glue and the fire of this institution. When they are cared for, we are all cared for. The library is where we store our dreams so we and others can find them again, so we can learn from each others failures and successes, so we can move to new dreams. The faculty and staff at Centennial make this possible in ways that I have not seen at other institutions. They are the treasure of this university.

My mother used to tell me "what you don't appreciate you soon lose." We cannot let this happen to the library. Because those of us who do research know that the library is the absolute sustenance of academic life, we want to see more of our indirect costs going to the libraries. We want to insure that the generations after us and the students who are just learning to love libraries have the opportunity to find the wings we have all found there, to ponder the mysteries that give direction to our scientific quests, and to encounter new mysteries that fill their souls with wonder.

As Albert Einstein said "The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. " " Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day."

The mysteries that propelled us when we held books in our hands as small children can still swallow us whole. The library is the place in our society that we entrust to hold these mysteries and make them available to all of us. The library is always familiar and always new, it is the perfect combination of rememberances of the smells of childhood and the empowerment of aging. Libraries hold the maps of frontiers, they are the spot from which our explorations begin and to which they return time after time.

As TS Eliot says in the Four quartets: We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

It is the combination of the library and the experiences of life that allow that to happen - and for that I would like, on behalf of all of the faculty, staff, and students whose papers, grants, lives, teaching, and intellectual and spiritual growth have flourished as a result of our interactions with the library and its staff, to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for maintaining and nurturing this light within our midst.