Holdengraber – The Circle from Private to Public and Back Again

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Paul Holdengraber

We have a couple of circles at work here, one of which is that Holdengraber and his interviewer, Erik Boekesteijn, at this morning’s session have covered similar territory before, and not only for the video produced for the Shanachie Tour.  Nonetheless, Holdengraber is a walking Tesla coil, so it almost does not matter whether you have witnessed the show before, because the electricity is just as jolting the next time.

The second circle consists of Holdengraber’s view that his job as a person who organizes library events begins with his own pleasures involving books, those private experiences that he finds enriching.  In wanting to share that kind of private experience, his job allows him to take that experience to a public realm, the Live at New York Public Library series.  There he can interview authors, artists, thinkers of a variety of stripes, and generate some friction at the event to give the event an afterlife, the afterlife in which someone might pick up the book that was discussed and have a private experience of her own.

photo of Joan Crawford

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Holdengraber held back from a full frontal assault on the trend among some librarians to see the introduction of gaming models as a panacea.  He mentioned explicitly his wish not to offend his colleagues back at the NYPL who might have seen the live video streaming of the interview, or who might have viewed the video later.  Not all friction must be of the positive variety for Holdengraber.  His objection, muted as it was, deserves our attention at Internet Librarian, because what is at stake is a narrowing of experiences in general, and an undermining of a kind of learning that takes place against our will.  Holdengraber’s negativity about librarians fretting endlessly over usability studies and surveys of what “users” want seems justified, lest we end up with a world that simply leads to some Skinnerian horror show in which “users” say they want the intellectual equivalent of doughnuts at the library, and librarians feel a duty to meet those wishes and provide only an endless diet of Krispy Kremes for the “users.”  That cannot be healthy on a number of fronts.

The “give-them-what-they-want” (i.e., entertainment) model of librarianship, predicated on the self-interest of librarians who also want their jobs to be fun, produces one kind of experience, met by a variety of means from Second Life to World of Warcraft, two of the recent staples of IL conferences.  That model leaves out an entire range of learning that the ancients knew well — pathei mathos, learning via suffering.  Holdengraber expressed this ancient notion somewhat differently, offering language that would not be as jolting.  Holdengraber talked about “friction” in conversations, and about offering “surprises” to those who visit libraries (virtually or in person).  He outlined a scenario not that far from Aristotle’s Poetics, particularly Aristotle’s discussion of the audience’s role in tragedies. Naturally, Holdengraber does not have in mind that the audiences for his events will undergo some experience akin to Oedipus, but he insisted upon something other than pandering to audiences.  In fact, he mentioned at the outset of the morning interview that he did not want his interviewer to exempt Holdengraber from tough, potentially uncomfortable, questions.

To practice what he preached about offering experiences that might cause audiences to leave an event wanting to learn more, Holdengraber urged his listeners to run out and read anything by António Lobo Antunes.  As soon as I can find a decent bookstore, I will look for something by Antunes and complete the second circle.

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