Blogpost contributed by Michael Konieczny, Ph.D. Classics, Harvard 2019
Most of the writing I have done has taken the form of academic papers, student evaluations, and job applications (the worst!): the blog post is a new genre for me, so I apologize in advance if I don’t get it quite right. I’ve been asked to write about the Center for Hellenic Studies from the perspective of someone who has just recently completed their Ph.D. in Classics (I graduated from Harvard in May of 2019); in addition, I will talk about some of my work for the Open Greek and Latin Project, which I have been involved in as part of my appointment at the Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS).
My interest in librarianship began a few years into my Ph.D. program, when I took up the role of assistant librarian for the Smyth Classical Library at Harvard. One of my tasks as Smyth assistant was to select new books for the library to buy, so I sometimes liked to think of myself as wielding an immense power and influencing the course of the research that would be conducted there in the future; in fact Smyth’s purchasing program was fairly restricted and focused mainly on critical editions and commentaries, so my power was not so immense after all, even if the satisfaction of providing users with essential resources was real. In addition to drawing up purchase orders, I was also responsible for taking care of the books that we already had: much of this involved moving huge quantities of books to clear space on the shelves, which gave me a fresh perspective on the scope of publications such as the Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum. (In connection with this I might mention that one of the most interestingly-shaped books in any Classics library will be the old Concordance to Ovid, which is the most nearly cube-shaped of book of any I have seen; sadly the Concordance has now been relegated to the “Corridor,” a dark hallway in which Smyth stores its libri antiquiores and that also houses the desk of the assistant librarian.)
I started working at the CHS library in November 2019, about six months after earning my degree from Harvard. Much of the work was familiar to me from my Smyth assistantship: shelving and re-shelving books, fixing spine tags, creating an inventory of books that had been donated to the library or ended up there by mistake. From my new colleagues, Erika, Lanah, Sophie and Temple, I also learned about many other aspects of librarianship, including how to use the all-powerful ALMA software to catalogue new books, process invoices, and check items back into the stacks. Around Thanksgiving we prepared a shipment of paperback books to be re-bound in hardcover at the Acme bookbindery in Charlestown, Massachusetts: the sacrilegious prelude to this operation involved tearing the original covers off of the books and throwing them (the covers) away!
What I most enjoyed about working at the CHS, however, was the spirit of collegiality that exists among all of its members. Every day at 12:30, fellows and staff come together in the dining room for a wonderful lunch, and throughout the workday the campus is animated by a shared enterprise of research, work and conversation; everyone knows each other by name. The Center also hosts a variety of talks, workshops and performances, and welcomes researchers from all over the world to use its library and take part in the community. Coming from the sometimes dispiriting rigors of dissertation-writing and the academic job market, I was invigorated to find myself in an environment where the pursuit of Classics is both joyful and inclusive.
In addition to working in the library, my appointment at the CHS enabled me to participate in the Open Greek and Latin (OGL) Project, whose ultimate aim is to make digital editions of every work of Greek and Latin literature freely available online. (Currently available texts can be found at the Scaife Viewer website. Ideally, these digital editions will someday include a complete apparatus criticus, so that any user can in effect define a “custom” edition that incorporates the textual variants of whatever manuscript tradition they desire.) The nature of this work was somewhat unexpected, as it required me to learn the basics of XML (for editing texts) and, most daunting of all, GitHub, whose whimsical jargon (“push,” “pull,” “fork”) belies its almost mind-bogglingly confusing protocols. My expert and patient guide through all of this material was Lia Hanhardt, who also trains the CHS’s undergraduate interns during the summer. Like the CHS, the OGL is defined by an ethos of collegiality and egalitarianism: contributors are dispersed across institutions in multiple countries (coming together via Google Hangouts or Zoom), and the absence of a rigidly hierarchical organization means that the project is receptive to the ideas of even its most junior members.
It has been a year of unlooked-for surprises. In January of 2020, after just two-and-a-half months, my work at the CHS was cut short unexpectedly when I was suddenly called back to Harvard to teach two courses for the Classics Department. Then, in March, normal life was suspended on account of an unprecedented global health crisis: college students all over the country, including Harvard, were sent home, and teaching was moved entirely online. As of this writing, shelter-in-place orders are still in effect in most states.
One effect of the coronavirus pandemic has been to underscore how indispensable libraries and librarians are to academic work. On the one hand, the closure of libraries nationwide (including Harvard and the CHS) has put essential materials out of reach for many scholars; on the other hand, we have seen how resourceful librarians have been able to partner with publishers and other companies to put tremendous volumes of previously inaccessible material online for the duration of the crisis. As a lover of physical books, I would never wish to see the day when libraries close their stacks in favor of a completely electronic collection (something which would be nearly impossible to achieve, anyway). Nevertheless, perhaps it is inevitable that these few weeks or months (hopefully not more) will serve as a kind of inflection point in the way that libraries conceive of the nature of their collections and services. In the best-case scenario, the increasing availability of e-resources will help to democratize Classics as well as many other fields, particularly in the humanities, whose research materials are still heavily concentrated in a small number of elite libraries; in this new environment, projects such as the OGL will have an important role to play. But the universal restlessness shared by everyone after just three weeks on lockdown speaks to the vital importance of the day-to-day physical interactions facilitated by spaces such as the CHS, for which Zoom can never be an adequate substitute. So, let us hope that the era of “social distancing” will be a short one indeed.