Monday, February 22, 2010

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu

"Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu" should be repeated every hour on the hour by every school child all over the world until it becomes the mantra of all societies. It is Bantu for "A human is human because of other humans."

The simple but profound adage is the theme of Chinua Achebe's collection of essays, The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays.It may also be the theme of his life's work, judging by the simple message it conveys about the importance of the communal aspirations of the peoples of Africa. He uses it several times in various essays in the book, but really drives the point home in the concluding paragraph of the last one, titled "Africa Is People."

"Our humanity is contingent on the humanity of our fellows. No person or group can be human alone. We rise above the animal together, or not at all. If we learned that lesson even this late in the day, we would have taken a truly millennial step forward."
Achebe, winner of the Man Booker International Prize and best known as the author of Things Fall Apart,one of the seminal works of African fiction, has a subtle, dry voice that makes each of these seventeen essays something to savor and linger over. He makes his points about racial stereotypes, African development, history, and politics, and the African-American diaspora, sometimes with humor, sometimes with biting directness, but always graciously and without rancor. You sense Achebe knows that to rail against injustice is futile; change must come through education achieved one cogent argument at a time.

While Achebe is a scholar, he is also a master storyteller. More often than not, he makes his points not with dry logical argument but with an exegetical tale about someone he's met or something that's happened to him. Those little narratives are much more illustrative than pure cant. In "Spelling Our Proper Name," he tells the story of Dom Afonso of Bukongo, for example, who negotiated with King John III of Portugal in 1526 as an equal. He then writes:
"Such stories as Dom Alfonso's encounter with Europe are not found in the history books we read in schools. If we knew them....young James Baldwin would not have felt a necessity to compare himself so adversely with peasants in a Swiss village. He would have known that his African ancestors did not sit through the millennia idly gazing into the horizon, waiting for European slavers to come and get them."
I found his exploration of the complex politics and history of Africa in "Africa's Tarnished Name" to be particularly thought-provoking. He also talks frequently about Joseph Conrad's purported racism, which has become an important theme in the deconstruction of Heart of Darkness. Some of these essays have been presented elsewhere, although they have been revised and updated since they were first published. Nothing in them is dated, however, and Achebe's insightful discussions with Langston Hughes and James Baldwin ring as true as his observations about the potent symbolism of Barack Obama's election as President of the United States.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Caped Crusaders In The Stacks - A Love Song For Librarians

Marilyn Johnson has accomplished one of the most difficult tasks a journalist can attempt: she accurately portrayed change in the midst of it happening. In This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, she tackles librarianship, a profession undergoing changes that rival the Industrial Revolution. A daunting feat, but she nailed it.

The major change agent in the field is the same one rocketing through the rest of our society, technology. Johnson's singular accomplishment was to describe the impact of that many-headed monster with a minimum of jargon and a maximum of humaneness. She did it not by focusing on bits and bytes, industrial statistics and professional arcana, but by presenting the human side of technology; how librarians are adapting (or not) to their new tools, defending their jobs (or not) against the onslaught of automation, and even inventing (or avoiding) new roles in their communities for their cherished libraries. Her eye was on the people, not the machines.

First and foremost, Johnson is a storyteller. Like the good magazine journalist she was in her prior career, she uses people to tell her story of cyber assault on the stacks. Each chapter explains the lives--personal and professional--of outstanding, devoted, and often off-beat librarians. Yet she never strays from the theme of the book, which is that librarians are the people who can "Save Us All" from drowning in the digital ocean. Among the many tales she tells is the one about Kathy Shaughnessy, the Assistant Professor/Instructional Services Librarian at St. John's University Library in Queens who leads a team teaching computer skills to students from a wide variety of countries at the University's campus in Rome. The goal: to enable the students, some of whom had never touched a computer, to return to their native land and complete their master's degree online. In another, she lavishes praise on David Smith, the storied reference librarian at NYPL who retired in 2009 after a career devoted to helping writers use the institution's vast resources to their best effect. In the process, she tells us not only what Smith accomplished, but gave us an accurate picture of what's happening to the home of Patience and Fortitude (the stone lions that guard the library) as it plunges headlong into the digital age.

Johnson also tells the disturbing story of the near-debacle that happened when the Westchester Library System installed new catalog software to serve 37 of its 38 member libraries. Her account has two viewpoints, that of the librarians struggling with the new system and the one of the IT director trying to make it work. There is A LOT OF TENSION in the story. Full disclosure: I was president of the WLS Board at the time and witnessed the events firsthand. Trust me, Johnson's account is distressingly accurate.

It would be easy to get lost and start wandering in the electronic landscape, but Johnson generally steers clear of that danger. The only time her compass went a little haywire was in her chapter on libraries in Second Life, the virtual world constructed by people with an apparently limitless amount of time on their hands. Admittedly, my opinion of the whole enterprise probably clouds my viewpoint, which matches that of Johnson's husband, Rob, whom she quotes as observing, "Yes, yes, but what's it for?"

Even during her foray into Second Life, though, Johnson's exuberance carries the narrative. Her enthusiasm for the topic and her obvious love for the subjects of her tales--the librarians she hung out with for three years while researching the book--are evident on every page. This Book Is Overdue is just what the title says, a long-overdue love song to librarians.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the