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Archive for August, 2012

Spinning

One afternoon in the National Museum of Damascus, I spotted through dusty glass those Ras Sharma artifacts, tiny cylinders, carved and ready to be rolled across clay. I later read that the cuneiform characters carved on those cylinders were the mother or our own alphabet. This cache discovered by archeologists in 1928 part of an ancient library’s collection changed the scholars’ view of words and language: Ras Sharma, Mediterranean coast, Syria.

I spend time every week in library stacks retrieving interlibrary loan requests. I haven’t retrieved a book on Ras Sharma or sent one in that exact direction yet. I mailed a book on Gertrude Stein to Turkey on Friday, pretty close. I mailed a book to South Africa on holocaust crimes the week before. That alphabet set up by scribes many millenniums past, the one from Ras Sharma, ancient Ugarit, has magically branched out.

The spiders in my basement apartment have branched out also, those daddy long legs stay to the baseboards and weave their webs. Ah, Ras Sharma and spiders an interesting mix! I am reminded of the Native American myth of the spider and the deer. Deer asked Spider why she wove such an intricate web with symbols; Spider said that Earth’s children needed those symbols to preserve knowledge from past to future. I wonder if the ancients in Ras Sharma inspected spiders’ webs? I have and I sweep those webs and my spiders out daily and they come back. I don’t kill daddy long legs: persistent, quiet creatures, kind of like librarians. They just go about their business.

An important business it is, because it takes more than symbols to keep our knowledge base intact these days, to protect and share it: From catalogers to shelvers; from circulation desk to reference; collections and weeding; IT to ILL. Sometimes I push my cart through the stacks and I want to stop and browse, but I don’t have the time because I am going to find information in a book for someone miles away who needed it yesterday. They can’t find what they need online or they wouldn’t be asking me; hundreds of requests get scanned and emailed or wrapped up and mailed on a weekly basis from my college. Imagine the web of information transfer going on worldwide on a daily basis made possible by all those librarians.

Sometimes I wonder, is it worth it, all this energy to move information? My spiders keep coming back to trap something along the baseboards. They weave their Ras Sharma symbols and wait. While much spinning made from my mailings may be for naught, I am steadfast that a few of my customers out there will puzzle together silk filaments and trap some gems.

A Ramble

Great Grandpa Edward Lynch told my mother that women needed an education. He remembered his mother, Sarah Ryan, a leghorn plaiter, born in London city center in 1820; she could only sign her mark on the marriage certificate when she married Michael Lynch an Irish tailor in 1843. Michael signed his name on that certificate and made sure that his sons could read and write and they were listed on the census return of 1861 as scholars. Sarah plaited straw into bonnets, bore two sons, and disappeared from records after 1861. According to family lore, her husband took his eldest son Edward to Paris where the twelve year old learned to carve stone. By 1863, Michael Lynch, the tailor with political leanings, had secured passage to America for himself and his eldest.

Edward attended the University of Illinois from 1868 to 1873, gained an engineering degree and married the daughter of his English professor. Genevieve Baker had attended university for several years alongside her future husband. She descended from a long line of women who wrote their own names, read the bible, and gained a passable education even on the Maine frontier. Genevieve wrote for magazines on the east coast and later for newspapers on the west coast. By the time of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, Genevieve had divorced Edward and was living alone near Lafayette Square working as a reporter.

When my mother visited Edward in Pasadena in the 1920s, when he gave her volumes of Aesop tales, Shakespeare dramas and assorted folk tales and songs, when he told her that women needed an education, she followed his advice and became a schoolteacher. She turned down a scholarship to Stanford because her father, Edward’s son didn’t want her to live away from home, a glitch in the dramatic improvement of Lynch women’s educational prospects. Nevertheless by 1931, in three generations Lynch women went from plaiting straw to graduating from university.

When I grew up, my mother suggested I get my teaching credential like she had. She said, “you have few choices: secretary, nurse, teacher.” I didn’t choose any of those, at least not to start with. I preferred being a hippie and living on the land, making necklaces and milking cows. I didn’t know anything about Sarah or Genevieve and had no interest in my ancestors’ trails. But I had read all of my Great Grandfather’s books as I grew up: I sang the songs, and knew the myths and plays. My middle name was a shortened form of Genevieve. I did become a teacher and then I did something different. I went back to school and became a librarian when the World Wide Web was in its infancy. I discovered Archie and Veronica, the Bancroft library and the libraries worldwide, full of records. I gained the tools to discover and with that, I found Sarah, the leghorn plaiter and Genevieve, the reporter.

I think that Edward realized women, the other half, needed as powerful a voice as men, because without that, half the world is missing. Between his stone carving for the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, passing the state bar and lawyering for the railroad barons, managing Auburn gold mines and writing on solar flares and climate change; between his divorce and drink, in his mind, he tipped his hat and made room for his mother, his wife, and my mother with the knowledge that the world would realign itself, from his granddaughters to his great great granddaughters and beyond. But here, I pause and I tip my hat not to Edward for his inclusive vision for women, but to Genevieve, solitary and fiery, who has loaned me her voice; and I bow to Sarah, silent and stubborn, who has given me purpose. With these gifts, I have become a plaiter of straw, from straw into words, from words into stories.

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