Jon de Vos: While I was out saving the manatee
September 19, 2008
School is starting up again. With no small amount of pride I humbly note that my alma mater, Arizona State University, has always earned a prominent spot in Playboy’s Top Ten List of Party Schools. In what is probably not a coincidence, for many years, there was a fine drinking establishment within crawling distance of campus named “The Library.”
“The Library” contributed to many students education with offerings like 25-cent Tequila Shooter Tuesdays. It allowed me to look my father square in the eye and boast that I was spending quite a bit of time in “The Library” so he could be reassured that there would be no repeat of last semester, nosiree, I learned my lesson.
Libraries are one of mankind’s oldest institutions, first started by the Sumerians nearly 5,000 years ago. Sumerians lived in the area of modern Kuwait and northern Saudi Arabia and are attributed with the development of writing. It’s believed that writing was created as people began to aggregate into cities causing a great shift in agricultural supply, demand and distribution. Early writings were focused on record keeping as food moved from the farmer to the city markets. We know this with some certainty because these writings were etched in wet clay with reeds and preserved as clay tablets.
One of the most notable libraries due to its size and antiquity, was the Library of Alexandria, begun in the third century B.C. by the king of Egypt, Ptolemy I Soter. It contained approximately 700,000 written works, painstakingly categorized by a gentleman named Callimachus, a poet and the first acknowledged librarian in the world. Many of the earliest works were on clay tablets. However, paper was invented in the first century A.D. and most of the later works were on parchment scrolls. This library endured for nearly a thousand years before it was burned to the ground by Muslims under the directions of the Caliph Umar I in 640 A.D.
Today, with over 32 million catalogued books, 61 million manuscripts, 13 million prints and photos, two Stradivarius violins and 6,000 comic books on 530 miles of shelves, our own Library of Congress is the largest library the world has ever known. Counting all cataloged items totals over 138 million entries. However knowledge is useless if you can’t put your finger on it and 32 million books is a sizeable pile. Rest assured the Library of Congress has a sophisticated catalog system, but in a system that large, if only one tenth of one percent of the books are misfiled, that represents 32,000 books that can’t be found.
Our own Fraser Library was built as an ambitious dream, with sweat, enthusiasm and a lot of good people’s donations with no help from public funds. As you might suspect, I am an ardent supporter of our libraries but a new technological wrinkle has me flummoxed. No actual librarians are involved in the new automated check-out.
Computers are cold-hearted machines with no interest in “extenuating circumstances”. Inside me there is still the same small child who could not get his diploma from Arizona State University without making a hefty endowment to the ASU Library for overdue book charges.
There I am in the Fraser Library, quietly sobbing in front of a heartless computer screen, “Well, you see, this book is late is because it must have slipped behind the sofa when I jumped up to save my neighbor’s children because their house caught fire and the car wouldn’t start so I had to carry all three of them to the hospital and I’ve been so distracted lately what with all the missionary work in Africa in between the research on the avian flu vaccine and saving the manatee, so could maybe you cut me a little slack? You know, just this one time? Hello?”
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