The New Monastic Librarians

In his book The Twilight of American Culture (Norton, 2000), the social critic Morris Berman foresees a looming dark age when much of Western learning could be eclipsed. The evidence is all around us, he says: the numbing reign of corporate influence, the mania for credentials over true learning, and a populace rendered nearly illiterate by its addiction to dumbed-down mass entertainment. While that might seem like reason enough for despair, Berman looks to an ancient tradition for hope. Like those who once copied texts as a way to save them for a more enlightened time, a cadre of "new monastic individuals" must take up the task of protecting the knowledge they love.

As in every age, there are those who live for something other than fame, fortune, or mere survival. In their days, work and play are blurred. They may be poets, thinkers, listeners, artisans, or savers of seeds; people who keep languages alive or guard wild, beautiful places. They tend to be iconoclasts who, in Berman's words, "don't try to elevate their iconoclasm into a new movement." Berman doesn't mention librarians, but he could have. Many still regard the institutions in which they work with reverence, as storehouses of a culture's wisdom, and quietly work to preserve them. Here are just a few.

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