It seems like an appropriate time to try to raise the level of discourse, so I turn to Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American Transcendentalist poet, philosopher, and essayist.  What better text to consider than his 1837 address entitled “The American Scholar,” delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge.

Emerson reflected on an ancient fable about Man being divided, with each individual specializing in a particular function such as statesman or farmer or soldier.  Amongst these functions is the scholar, and Emerson provided a stark picture of a scholar in a right society versus a degenerate one: “In the right state, he is, Man Thinking.  In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.”

Emerson identified three influences on the scholar:

  1. Nature.  In reading this section, it struck me that Emerson could just as easily have been describing an arrangement and description archivist trying to bring order to collections: “since the dawn of history, there has been a constant accumulation and classifying of facts.  But what is classification but the perceiving that these objects are not chaotic, and are not foreign, but have a law which is also a law of the human mind?”
  2. The past.  Emerson suggested “books are the best type of the influence of the past, and perhaps we shall get at the truth, — learn the amount of this influence more conveniently, — by considering their value alone.”  Yet he also contended books can be misused when they pin us down and force us to look backward.  He concluded, “genius looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead: man hopes: genius creates.”  As argued by so many other writers I’ve previously cited, archivists cannot afford to focus only on the past we are trying to preserve — geniuses also look forward.
  3. Action.  In earlier parts Emerson stressed the importance of an active soul, and he came back to explain, “Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential.  Without it, he is not yet man.  Without it, thought can never ripen into truth.  Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty.  Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind.  The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action.”  Similarly, I would argue that good archival work cannot be focused merely on research of best practice but must incorporate the doing of work, at whatever level it may grade out.

Emerson then defined the duties of the scholar: “to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. . . .  He is the world’s eye.  He is the world’s heart.  He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history.”  Seems to me this could be a job description for an archivist!

Emerson concluded, “The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future.  He must be an university of knowledges.”  May we all aspire to be such a scholar for our patrons.

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