Serendipity in the Library

On the road...again!!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek


Serendipity in the Library


Another dream last night…and another attempt at an essay today.  Most dreams are not long enough or sensible enough to savor and save as muted inspiration, but over the past few years, the Footloose Forester has noted that some dreams are so insistent with their central themes and attention to detail that he tentatively concludes that the underlying messages are worthy of analysis.  Nobody cares if the analysis is right or wrong, accurate or wildly misleading, so putting the analysis on paper for personal consideration is not doing anybody any harm. But it may do the Footloose Forester some good when he someday looks at this chronicle about a dream and tries to understand his views about the world.




One of his emerging views is the hugely important existence of institutions such as libraries.  Old libraries with rare books, modern libraries with microfiche, video files, and daily newspapers from several cities from around the world.   Even the unacknowledged world libraries that are contained inside hand-held iPads and tablets with linkages to the Internet.  The existence of the libraries is one thing, but access to them is quite another.

Although the Footloose Forester thinks that the Internet is the greatest library in the world, even the tens of thousands of web sites of the Internet do not afford complete access to all there is to read and to know from each of the scattered libraries around the world.  Making all of it available and accessible is a huge challenge, but is possible with the technologies that exist today.  We have a long way to go but we now know the way.

Last night’s dream was about the dreamer going into a quaint old library where the books were shopworn but well kept on shelves; where newspapers and magazines were displayed in racks; and where even single sheets of paper and loose-leaf reports were displayed in such a way that they attracted the visitor to come close to read.  It so happened that the library was a forestry library and the visiting dreamer was seeking to learn about forestry practices in other countries.  Ever so gradually it became apparent to the dreamer that the visitor was the Footloose Forester and he was still seeking new knowledge about the tropics and how tropical forests and their environmental conditions differ from those in temperate climates.

The main library in the dream was in Haiti, but all the while the visitor, the Footloose Forester, was hoping that he would find a book or two about the forests of Southeast Asia.  And that was when he recalled that he was booted out of a university library in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia back in 1967 because he was not a student there.  He was asked to leave but not before he had read a bit about how Malaysian foresters used quasi-taxonomic sap and bark keys to identify standing trees in the forest.  It was good information, but there was not enough time to digest it all, or to take notes for future ventures into surrounding jungles. Alas, the Footloose Forester never again found a university library with such a rich mixture of books on tropical forestry.  The BIOTROP library at Kebun Raya in Bogor, Indonesia, nonetheless; is among the very best.  He was fortunate enough to have visited and to add it to his shortlist of world-class forestry libraries.

As he was learning to identify the local flora, the Footloose Forester was lucky enough to spend a few days at the botanical gardens in Singapore and at the world-famous Kebun Raya botanical gardens in Bogor, Indonesia. But he knew that his field observations needed the reassurances of checking his observations in library books and in herbaria in the region.  Some of the correct answers to his questions were found in books and on herbarium specimen sheets.  Thus, his unrequited desire slipped into his subconscious, only to re-appear in a dream many years later.

Getting back to the dream and the forestry library in Haiti, he was also looking for information about trees and forestry issues pertaining to the forests of the Caribbean and Central America.  During his search and going from room to room, the Footloose Forester noticed some of the loose-leaf pages were displayed as macramé flowers in arrays on individual shelves.  Bits and pieces of information could be discerned, but not enough to make sense of the passages.  He also noticed a few references to the research of others, leading to what has since become the serendipity of the library… and the chosen title of this chronicle.

When he was in college and studying at the Rutgers University Library, the Footloose Forester used to take breaks by wandering in the book stacks and skimming the titles, and sometimes the contents of random books.  It was his way of opening his eyes to the breadth of information about which he knew nothing at all, and was a daily reminder about how ignorant he was of the world beyond his nose.

He also noticed that the daily serendipity of a new book and its contents had links to something else—cross-references, as it were.  And they were real; and very often important links. Scientific papers that are published in journals almost always have references listed at the end of the articles; and the authors of the articles are expected to provide those supporting references.  Authors confident of their views are not afraid to cite the works of others; to support their own views; to clarify the positions of others; or to take issue with the published works that should be challenged.  The serendipity of the library can be found in books but especially in the bound journals that invite the reader to seek out the findings of others.

Finally, in the dream, the Footloose Forester could not help but notice that some of the books, newspapers, and loose-leaf macramé articles were printed in other languages: French, German, Russian, Chinese, and Spanish.  That was to be expected because every country has its own forests and its own forestry issues. Making the link to a better understanding of world forestry means taking the steps to discover the serendipity that has always been there, the serendipity in the library.  

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