March 19, 2015 by libroshombre
“Ask Us Anything” is a regular feature of Popular Science Magazine written by Daniel Engber that might be offering more than it can deliver. Like a good reference librarian, Engber cites the sources of his answers to questions like “Can body fat protect you like a built-in cushion?” and “How big would a meteorite have to be to wipe out all human life?” The answer to the first is “yes and no”; fat provides some cushioning but it also entails greater body mass being flung about, according to Richard Kent of the University of Virginia Center for Applied Biomechanics. And University of Colorado geoscientist Brian Toon’s research revealed that life-ending meteorite needs to be “60 miles wide, give or take.”
Smithsonian Magazine has “Ask Smithsonian.” It’s similar but draws on the wide-ranging Smithsonian staff of experts for its responses. For example, a geographer from the National Air and Space Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies named Andrew Johnston described why you can only move south if you’re standing precisely on the North Pole. Nonetheless, probably no one at either publication can tell me why the Islamic State’s leaders think destroying Sumerian, Assyrian, and other ancient cultural artifacts is a good idea.
The News Miner reported on Iraq’s national museum re-opening its doors last week for the first time since 2003 when it was thoroughly looted following the U.S-led invasion. 4,300 of the 15,000 lost items have been recovered. That same week reports emerged about ISIS’s destruction of the museum and public library in Mosul, Iraq, which had been similarly looted in 2003. Finance.Yahoo.com reported that back then “people living nearby managed to save most of its collections, and rich families bought back the stolen books, and they were returned to the library.” according to Finance. The pitifully small-minded ISIS men “bombed the Mosul Public Library, according to the library’s director. “They used improvised explosive devices.” Horrified library patrons watched as many thousands of books were burned, including some 8,000 rare and historic works. ISIS already destroyed Mosul University’s library last December.
My favorite library school class was History of Books and Printing. We handled 3,000 years old cuneiform tablets and papyrus and acquired a deep appreciation for the rise of communications technology that’s necessitated libraries and librarians for 5,000 years and counting. Mankind’s painfully incremental progress in civilizing itself is founded upon the written historical record of its arts, sciences, and philosophies. Every advance in communications, from clay tablets to papyrus to parchment to paper to digital, has improved the storing and transporting of information, but it’s also become progressively more fragile.
The average American hasn’t studied all this like me, but I suspect their abhorrence of ISIS’s destructive habits isn’t far from mine. The burning of books, especially important, rare books, incites a visceral response in most marginally-civilized people. The Nazis’ book-burning antics of eighty years ago still riles us. Book burning on this scale amounts to intellectual genocide; it’s an entirely despicable act that leaves all humanity poorer.
It doesn’t hurt to reflect at times like these on the horrible, and much more significant, destruction of the world’s knowledge by Christian crusaders who sacked and destroyed the mighty libraries of Constantinople in 1204. And don’t forget the Christian mob that ravaged the surviving vestiges of the Library at Alexandria at the urging of Theophilus, the Coptic Bishop of Alexandria. No one’s perfect.
You and I are more like Samuel “Dictionary” Johnson. As described recently by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, “Dr. Johnson was once asked whyhe always rushed to look at the spines of books in the library when he arrived at a new house. ‘Sir, the reason is very plain,’ he said. ‘Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.”
Reference librarians study hard to learn a wide range of information sources, from books to databases and beyond. Besides the introductory reference class that required learning 800 sources, for example, I also studied humanities reference and government documents, and then worked at reference desks for 30 years. And I still can’t tell you how to look into the hearts of such pitiably small-minded men.