Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Learning to be a librarian

Learning to be a librarian

When Alvin Josephy started talking about leaving his books to Fishtrap all those years ago, I nodded and envisioned a nice addition to the Fishtrap house with shelves of books, a file cabinet or two, study carrels, and a stream of poets and historians pulling books off the shelves and making new poems and stories with their help. Over time, in conversations with Fishtrap friends and with a small grant from the Lamb Foundation, the vision gained an artist’s rendering (see top of the blog page) and an architect’s plans.

And then the real world and a recession hit, money from foundations that had seemed “ready” became impossible, and, eventually, I settled in to try to make sense of Library holdings, mission, and possibilities. I started learning to be a librarian, and envisioning the eventual physical home receded into some far off mist.

So now I wrestle with whether we finish cataloging books—or concentrate on papers and ephemera. And how do we make the information we have available? How important is a complete bibliography of Alvin’s work? And, most importantly, never mind the books—what do I do with Alvin Josephy’s legacy as historian and activist on behalf of American Indians? “Alvin, I thought you were leaving me a bunch of books, but all this?” I say to myself as he watches over my shoulder.

I talk about these things with writers, historians and library friends all the time. And just last week, had a nice meeting at Lewis and Clark College with Special Collections librarian Doug Erickson and friend Kim Stafford.

Doug’s office desk sits in a corner of the room that houses the William Stafford Collection. In the opposite corner there is an odd-shaped Plexiglas enclosure with a seat in it and wires running out of it to a stool-full of electronic gear. It was some kind of medical deal that Doug picked up on EBay for $150 and turned into a mini recording studio. Among other things, he records poets for his “Oregon Poetic Voices” project. I know a bit about that, because Fishtrap was an original partner, and you can go right to that site and hear Ursula LeGuin read poetry in 1990 at Summer Fishtrap. Try it: http://oregonpoeticvoices.org/

But the big aha moment for me in the talk with Doug and Kim is that libraries and archives are not just collections of old dusty stuff. They are things you work with now. And Doug says that Mitt Romney was right—rich folks get their words and ideas recorded all the time. Doug wants the poems your grandma wrote—or the ones you write.

Which takes me back to Alvin looking over my shoulder. He determined to write the Nez Perce book AFTER he found the Indian voices collected by an oddball Washington rancher named Lucullus McWhorter and published by another oddball, an old fashioned freedom of the press publisher from England who found his way to, of all places, Caldwell, Idaho, and founded Caxton Press. And published Yellow Wolf and Hear Me My Chiefs. http://www.caxtonpress.com/

In the twelve years it took to research and write The Nez Perce and the Opening of the Northwest, Alvin also found three remaining veterans of the Nez Perce War he could talk to, the Sohon drawings from the 1855 Walla Walla treaties, which were hidden away at the Washington State Historical Society, and other obscure stuff—revealed in the footnotes of the book (their omission the reason he always hated the abridged version of same)

So my next library project is to bring a real live archivist to town to train me and other volunteers in the ways of preserving these other voices against the time the next Alvin comes along.

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