In those days, it was perfectly in order to spend several years doing a PhD. Some people never finished at all. In the great mahogany stacks there were old men who never spoke to anyone, but shuffled to the same seat every day to slog away at a great work no one would ever see. The true professionals sat in a strange huddled posture, their arms guarding their books and papers from the prying eyes of rival scholars, like children protecting their chips from hungry siblings.
|Not much changed for four hundred years
My excitement was only slightly dimmed by the knowledge that I was the only person in the world who cared.
I was even a little sad at the thought that when my thesis was done, anyone with the detective power to trace a copy, and the muscular strength to lift it down from the shelf, would be able to find the location of 'my' documents in the bibliography.
|My idea of a fun place
I was lucky enough to be taught by some truly wonderful scholars. They were all equally brilliant, but in academic esteem, some were more equal than others. Those whose books were commissioned by commercial publishers and sold in normal bookshops were condemned by the Gnomes as 'popular' historians. Their success in spreading their knowledge to people outside the magic academic circle was taken as proof of their intellectual inferiority. It's not surprising that the collective noun is a 'malice' of historians.
The popular historians got their own back in the late 20th and early 21st century, when well researched, beautifully produced history books temporarily became money-spinners, but that was also the time when the Gnomes' contempt for such authors reached its highest point.
When broadband came along, even popular historians were tested in their belief that their work - and, more importantly, their source material, - should be available to the masses. Many ancient documents are now online in facsimile form. You can zoom in and out of indistinct lettering until a meaning emerges. You can compare documents housed a world apart, wearing your pyjamas or over a cappuccino. And you can do all this without any entrance exams, just for fun.
|Try deciphering this by the light of a 40 watt bulb in a library
I know that is a good thing, and I love using the Internet. But I'm ashamed to say that somewhere deep in my heart, I am sad. I miss our old secret world. I'd like to think that there's something noble in that sentiment, but if I'm honest it's founded on a pretty despicable form of snobbery. I liked knowing things that other people didn't know - and stood little chance of finding for themselves. I adored my old work tools (pencil, notebook, magnifying glass and silence). I thrived on the simultaneous torture of being kept away from my source material when the library was shut and the blissful encounter with real life that the closure forced on me.
Many professionals whose status depends on feats of memory are being undermined by our new world of information. Imagine how medics feel when patients arrive having correctly diagnosed their own illnesses online. It is becoming more difficult for them to appear omnipotent, or to bury their mistakes.
It is still (just) possible to do an historian's work in the old way. Some of the Gnomes are still there, bending over their books. Many more must have died of starvation in a world that only rewards published results. Others may have been driven out by the clicking keyboards of students using the library as a place to access the Internet while saving on heating bills at home.
I have said goodbye to my inner Edward Casaubon. But sometimes I secretly wish that I'd been born a little earlier, and could have carried on gnoming forever.
pictures :Wikimedia Commons. Library picture: Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons.