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Cold, snow and fog brings to mind story of London smog

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Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2012 11:44 pm

FAIRBANKS — “There are as many pillows of illusion as flakes in a snowstorm,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated, but he never drove in a Fairbanks snowstorm like last week’s, when even illusion had to be hard-pressed to keep up with the slow-motion avalanche.

My mom, a defensive driving instructor for AARP, teaches that although Lower 48 drivers need to keep enough space between them and the car ahead to count to “one-thousand and three,” in Alaska it needs to be at least “one-thousand and four,” and when the snow’s blanketing us, even that rule of thumb doesn’t apply.

The recent snowfall and inversions came on the 60th anniversary of London’s “The Great Smog.” December 1952 was particularly cold, and Londoners burned greater amounts of coal. About.com’s Jennifer Rosenberg wrote that “The fog mingled with soot, tar particles, and sulfur dioxide, and it was all trapped over London by a weather pattern known as a thermal inversion … the sun was unable to break through the clouds of smog. So the cold, dense yellow-black air lingered. 

London was shut down, “people couldn’t see their own hands and feet, and were getting lost in their own neighborhoods. A hundred thousand people were made ill, and ambulances couldn’t drive in the smog.” Twelve thousand people ultimately died from the smog, and in 1956 that led to Parliament passing the first Clean Air Act. That ought to be a lesson to us, but there’s no convincing some people.

A friend sent me an email list of “Laws You Didn’t Know You Knew” which included the “Law of Logical Argument:” “Anything is possible if you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Long-time librarians know the “Librarian’s Law:” the book you need is always on the lowest, hardest to reach shelf. And Twinkie lovers will agree with “Wilson’s Law of Commercial Marketing Strategy:” “As soon as you find a product you really like, they will stop making it.”

Starving snack cake fans came to mind recently upon reading a little known Grimm’s fairy tale: “The Children Living in a Time of Famine.” This story, one of the snippets the Grimms appended to their folktale collections, runs to only a half-page and isn’t especially compelling. It’s about a mother who told her daughters that food was so scarce, “I’ll have to kill you so that I’ll have something to eat.” The daughters say they’d sleep until Judgment Day and slept so soundly they couldn’t be awakened. So “the mother left, and not a soul knows where she is.”

You’d think the Grimms could do better, for they had the time.

Jacob Grimm, the elder of the two, had just studied law when Napoleon conquered Prussia and imposed Napoleonic law. Jacob refused to practice that, and in 1808 became a librarian instead, eventually becoming head librarian for the Royal Library at Gottingen, the first lending library in Germany. Library work can be surprisingly stressful, but the early 1800s saw an explosion in publishing and libraries without much thought about making libraries user-friendly. 

It was a Golden Era for lazy librarians, however, with Grimm’s job “requiring only a few hours a day cataloging new entries,” according to “The Annotated Brothers Grimm,” and he “had ample time to pursue his own research interests.” Wilhelm, whose health was always precarious, also became a librarian and they began cranking out fairy tale collections.

Modern librarians actually try to help people find and use information, and most adhere to the five principals set forth by S.R. Ranganathan, the Father of Indian Librarianism. These include “Books Are for Use,” instead of being overprotected and hard to get to, “Every Reader His Book,” where “individuals from all social environments are entitled to library service,” and “Save the Time of the Reader,” by arranging things so the needs of the reader are efficiently met, instead of predicating it on making life easy for the librarians.

Stress-free librarians sitting around in quiet corners and reading to their hearts’ content is a persistent myth dating back to the Grimms’ day. But as Saul Bellow noted, “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusions is deep.”

Greg Hill is director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries.

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