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Kinship and Scholarship: A Librarian and Scholar Find Books and Each Other

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Astrobiologist David Grinspoon and science librarian Margaret “Peg” Clifton have such an easy rapport that all I had to do was ask an initial question, and the two proceeded to speak for 30 minutes–finishing each other’s sentences along the way. The two reflect on their relationship forged at the Library of Congress that helped Grinspoon produce new scholarship on the Anthropocene Era.

David Grinspoon and Peg Clifton in Clifton's office
David Grinspoon and Peg Clifton in Clifton’s office, December 8, 2014. When Grinspoon first saw Clifton’s space posters, he knew he’d found a kindred spirit. Photo by Jason Steinhauer.

David: When proposing to work at the Library of Congress, you’re aware it has substantial resources. Part of the proposal process is discussing how you’ll use the collections. Before I arrived I did some Web searches, and saw lots of scientists’ papers that were of interest. But then you show up and it’s overwhelming to navigate your way through it all. There’s a real art and science of understanding what’s really here and knowing how to find it. That’s where the talents of people like Peg come through.

Peg: I had been tangentially involved in the consultation about the formation of the Astrobiology Chair, and I knew the first scholar was coming in late 2012. I found out the Kluge Center had assigned a research assistant, named Camilla, to the Chair, and I contacted her to come over to the Science, Technology & Business reading room and we did a walk-through of what science collections we have.

David: That’s right. And when I first came, Camilla was showing me the initial ropes–like how to find the cafeteria, which is surprisingly challenging in this labyrinthine place–and she told me ‘There’s a science librarian who’s expressed an interest in your work, and I can introduce you.’ And that first time we met was amazing, because you said–

Peg: –I said, whenever you can’t find something, and it will happen, just call me up.

David: Yes. And when I first walked into your office and saw all your space posters on the wall, I realized you were a space fanatic as well as a science librarian, which was great. And then you said, “You wanna see Carl Sagan’s books?” And I knew what the right answer to that was.

Peg: Well, the fact that you had that Sagan connection made it so much more meaningful.

David: And I had been in that library before, in a different building. So it was like reconnecting with an old friend. That was the start. Then I began to ask for random things.

Grinspoon and Clifton kibbutzing around in Clifton's office
Grinspoon and Clifton kibitz with the 3-D glasses and space paraphernalia in Clifton’s office, December 8, 2014. Photo by Jason Steinhauer.

Peg: It would be something in the catalog that hadn’t yet been processed, or that wasn’t on the shelf yet, or a journal article in an electronic format. Things that aren’t straightforward, that you need a librarian to navigate you to. Especially a new item that may be in the building but not yet processed.

David: You responded to my requests, which I appreciated, but you also took a special interest. You would occasionally send me articles. I remember you sent me an old newspaper headline about vegetable life on Mars. You had your radar up, and when things came across your desk you sent them my way, which was wonderful. But it was the Tsiolkovsky example that really made me think you had magic powers.

Peg: Oh, right.

David: Tsiolkovsky was a Russian space engineer, self-taught, who lived in the country by himself. He’s known for his pioneering ideas about space engineering from the 1910s that are still valid today. He invented space colonies. His engineering stuff is translated and you can find it on Wikipedia. But I started to learn about his philosophical stuff, which isn’t even mentioned in Wikipedia. None of it seemed translated. I don’t speak Russian, I couldn’t hire a translator. So I mentioned this to Peg, and suddenly this steady stream of stuff starting trickling my way: obscure pamphlets, sections of Ph.D. theses. It turned out there was a lot of material in English, but if you naively look in the catalog you won’t find it. You have to have the special powers that Peg has.

When you do scholarship that hasn’t been done before, it’s not just a matter of reading the standard books on the topic. The point of being at the Library of Congress is to bring stuff to the surface that hasn’t been exposed before. That makes the project unique, fresh, and essential to do here. It’s something that I couldn’t have done on my own. – David Grinspoon

Peg: It’s part of being a librarian. There are ways to pull things out of the catalog that are not obvious. It’s a matter of pulling all the threads. In this case there were variations on the spelling of his name, which was one way to find more information. And I had it in the back of my mind, so when something came along it triggered connections. It’s intuition and experience. It’s the art and science of library science. The key to being a good searcher is a varied vocabulary and using different combinations in the searches. There’s a lot of stuff buried in the databases; you need to know how to deconstruct those and get into them. It’s very difficult to figure out what you don’t know, what’s buried inside these walls. You have to know who to talk to.

David: It helps that you’re a real enthusiast for space. Your office is an impressive collection of space paraphernalia, knick-knacks, and cultural objects.

Peg: I was hired for military science. I quickly became educated in astronomy and physics, and really took to it.

David: Well, you’ve been absolutely essential. When you do scholarship that hasn’t been done before, it’s not just a matter of reading the standard books on the topic. The point of being at the Library of Congress is to bring stuff to the surface that hasn’t been exposed before. That makes the project unique, fresh, and essential to do here. It’s something that I couldn’t have done on my own.

Peg: Librarians fundamentally want to help people. We want to give researchers that one thing that people are not aware of. That’s deeply satisfying. And when you get acknowledged by someone whose work you like and respect, that’s the deepest satisfaction.

Peg Clifton retires from the Library of Congress on December 31, 2014.

Comments (2)

  1. Peg is my favorite librarian in the world! Every time I come down to research something, not only does she have what I want ready but also other materials I hadn’t yet thought to ask for. She IS magic!

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