Librarian as genius

So, now many of us can now claim that we know a genius. Last month, the MacArthur Foundation announced its most recent fellows, the recipients of the so-called “genius award.” On that list is Terry Belanger, founder of the Rare Book School at University of Virginia.

It’s interesting looking over the list of current and past recipients, which include a genius luthier, a genius fisherman, and a genius farmer. The American Library Association claims that Belanger is only the second librarian to receive a MacArthur fellowship. The way the list is organized, it would be difficult to pull out winners from the library, archival, or museum world, but a little searching and poking turned up no archivists. Not surprisingly, many museum people make the list, but almost all are curators. A possible exception is David Wilson (MacArthur class of 2001), founder of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in California. Since the Jurassic is sometimes considered a museum, sometimes not, this may be a toss-up.

Librarians are often portrayed in mass media as meek and mild mannered, spinsters who famously shush disruptive patrons. In the 21st century, librarianship is not for the risk adverse. Belanger is not a shy and retiring sort, and describes himself as “one of the noisier members of a considerable group of people who have worked for a very long time to help ensure that the future is not deprived of the past.” His dedication is legendary. He began to develop a program for rare book studies at Columbia University in the mid 1970s. When the School of Library Service at Columbia University packed up shop in 1992, he took the rare book program on the road to the University of Virginia. The Rare Book School has contributed to the education and continuing education of thousands of librarians. RBS has been run on a shoestring; hopefully this award will help bring attention to Belanger and the University of Virginia, but also to the importance of collecting, describing, maintaining, and preserving the unique, special, rare and rare materials in libraries, archives, and museums.