Wednesday, April 2, 2008


I have a thing for libraries, as so many of us do. I spent my high school years haunting the Nashville Public Library, as part of the auto-didacticism that is required of anyone who aspires to an education. I consider libraries to be an essential part of civilization.

When I was at RPI, however, the RPI Library was substandard, I mean officially so. The accreditation authorities said as much in so many words. The book collections were pretty thin, there were an insufficient number of journals, and the building was at the very edge of the campus, symbolic of an attitude of “They’ve got textbooks; why would they want to read more than that?” The library building itself was an old “phony Gothic” stone chapel, and not really suited for a library building, being dark, cold, and prone to dampness. So that was a factor as well.

There seemed to be something of a consensus that a new building was needed. But there were those in the RPI Administration who were dragging their feet.

One symptom of it all was that there were two different committees that were supposed to give “input” on library matters to the administration, the Library Advisory Committee (LAC), and another one whose name escapes me. No matter, I joined them both. Such committees always have trouble filling their student slots, so it was pretty easy.

I won’t bore you with the details, because this essay isn’t about the RPI Library per se. Suffice it to say that there were many interesting turns of events, and the library even became a Student Rebellion issue for a while, generating a few “feel-good” stories in the local media. See? At other schools they’re doing silly things like protesting the war, but at RPI, they just want a better library. (There were some anti-war protests at RPI also, but why ruin a feel-good story with that sort of detail?)

Anyway, I wasn’t a student protest kinda guy; I was a writer. I wrote about the matter. I wrote an article in the RPI Engineer, a student magazine that, just coincidentally, I’d recently managed to get supplied to all the Engineering Faculty for free (One more advantage of being friends with the Dean of the School of Engineering). So it became fodder for some Faculty/Administration arguments.

I wrote the article in diary/journal format, dated entries, that sort of thing. One administrator reportedly got into a bit of trouble because of some of the things I’d written, although I rather suspect that it was more because he was on his way out anyway, for very different reasons.

Anyway, eventually the decision was made to build a new library. A large part of the money came from a donor who stipulated that it should be named after the retiring University President, who, ironically enough, had been the single greatest obstacle to the project from the beginning. There were a few snarky comments about this from those in the know, but mostly it was a matter of “Hell, for $10 million, he can name it after his left testicle for all I care.”

The old chapel building became the computer center, if you can believe it. They built a climate controlled structure inside of the old building, the stone walls acting as heat ballast to assist in the air conditioning.

Time passes. One of my college reunions happened to coincide with the anniversary of the ground breaking (or some other important date). There was a gathering of people who had something to do with the matter, including the architect (it had been his first major building, and had basically established his career), the aforementioned former RPI President, various committee chairmen, librarians, etc. And me.

So there were some speeches. And bedamned if just about every one of them didn’t read from my article about the committees, and the back and forth with the administration, and so forth.

So here’s the thing. I said that I wrote the article in diary format. But I didn’t keep a diary. Hell, I barely kept notes. Occasionally, when writing the article, I’d come to some point where I didn’t remember something, and I’d just keep writing. In other words, I made some stuff up.

I know, I know. There have been a bunch of scandals in recent years about journalists making stuff up, and how bad it is, and I agree, in principle. I’ll even stipulate that it’s no excuse to say that I wasn’t a professional journalist (although actually, at the time I was a stringer for McGraw-Hill’s technical news service), or that I’d never had a journalism class, where they might teach about journalistic ethics (ha!). Or even that I was young and young people do make mistakes.

And I’m certainly not going to try to alibi that what I was writing about wasn’t that important. They were minor details to me at the time, but who gets to say what is and is not minor in the long run?

I will say this, however. It was a long time ago, and by now, despite having a really good memory, I have absolutely no idea which of the details in my article weren’t true. And furthermore, neither does anyone else. I wrote the history of the matter, and there it rests. It’s probably as true as any other primary source, and I’ll stand by it. History is a human invention, in more ways than one.


Anonymous said...

Don't know the French word for "history" but from my high school classes a billion years ago their word for "story" is histoire. Furthermore, on cherchez le web, one finds the phrase raconter des histoires that looks a lot like "recount history" but means "to tell fibs".

Your real time facts and fancies were apparently truth-y enough to now be gospel. Kinda makes me wonder a bit about gospels though. Libraries too.

James Killus said...

I was just reading a bit about the Gospels, in fact. There is a lot of scholarly quarreling, of course, but there seems to be general agreement that none of the synoptic gospels are better than second-hand accounts.

Arnaud said...

In French histoire means both "story" and "history"; and yes, un raconteur d'histoires can be both a storyteller and a compulsive liar. But not an historian.

You could even argue that the only difference between the three concepts behind this one word is not intrinsic but rather the fact of the listener/reader; as the willingness of the people in James' story to accept his account seems to show.

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