Those of you who were forced to read good books in high school or college may recognize this phrase from the beginning proto-chapter of Moby Dick . . . even before the famous “Call me Ishmael” bit. Melville sought to educate his reader on the topic of whaling and so began his book with a section called “Extracts: (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian)”. I had forgotten that MB begins this way until I returned to it last summer and found the section. The author calls himself this sub-sub librarian which must be the equivalent to the HR grade Library Assistant I, because to be a librarian in mid-nineteenth-century New England meant being part of a profession that you couldn’t just call yourself without knowing how to do some special stuff. That was before the internet usurped the term ‘Library’ to mean the collection of stuff dumped in a database.
What really fascinates me about this section is that it’s snippets. Quotations. Junk Melville found in different places that he assumed would be helpful to his reader.
“The sovereignest thing on earth is parmacetti for an inward bruise. — King Henry”.
Actually, I’d like a bumper sticker that says that. Melville’s Sub-Sub-Library is in fact a paradigm of a bricks-and-mortar library (and its virtual counterpart). A collection of things arranged in a way that could potentially make sense to a particular user, but we’re not going to promise. We’re not going to force your hand on this. The Extracts quotes other sources like Sibbald’s Fife and Kinross and Schouten’s Sixth Circumnavigation. Whew! Am I glad time marches on.
Is there a way of retaining what libraries are so that they can both appeal to the sub-sub types AND accommodate the modern, Caliban-ish quest for sherds on the ground that pass for knowledge? I don’t know. All I know is that the free internet isn’t quite ready to replace formal collections of disparate texts known as the library.
Post script. I assume that the coffee chain company Starbucks with its mermaid logo is derived from MD as well (Starbuck being the one sane person on the Pequod), probably because he was hyped up on caffeine.