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Sisyphus at the Ref Desk

Meagan Lacy

Sisyphus, according to Greek mythology, was a king condemned by the gods to the futile task of rolling a rock up a mountain. Hand-over-hand, Sisyphus would push the immense weight, but just before he could summit, the rock would always roll back to the bottom of the mountain, from whence he came, and he would be forced to return to it and repeat the process all over again. The gods believed, with good reason, that nothing could be worse than an eternity of fruitless and hopeless labor.

This image suddenly flashed in my mind’s eye a few weeks ago as I was helping a patron. Although I had been working as the student reference librarian at the UW Foster Business Library since I started the MLIS program, I had only recently begun to feel confident behind the desk. Although I had no prior business background, in time I noticed that students’ questions started to sound familiar. When I couldn’t answer a question, I could at least point students to the best databases.

Then this: “Yeah, I’m doing this internship with Boeing and blahblahblah portfolio management and blahblahblah supply chain and blahblahblah organizational structure?” While I could make out that the student was still in the beginning stages of his research project and that he still had a lot of thinking to do on his own, I didn’t have the vocabulary to restate his question much less draw out his “visceral need.”

Consequently, I started to feel like everything I had learned before was for naught and all of my previous successes at the reference desk were an illusion. In other words, I felt like Sisyphus at the moment when he returns to his rock and pauses, pondering the pointlessness of his task: He is never going to get that rock up that mountain. Similarly, no matter how much I study a subject and how many questions I answer, I will never know everything. I cannot avoid the question that I cannot answer.

In some ways, in fact, my fate is even worse. Sisyphus’ rock has a definite mass and definite shape. The burden is heavy, but he at least he knows how heavy. My rock, on the other hand, is information, something that is ever-expanding, unwieldy, growing heavier with every step that I take!

Confronted with this reality and its indifference to me, I have to ask myself, “Why do it, and why do you do it?” For answers, I turn to existentialist thinker Albert Camus who chose Sisyphus to exemplify the absurd in his essay, aptly named “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The absurd is defined as that contradiction between one’s desire to know and the innate limits of human reason, one’s ardor for understanding and the unintelligibility of the world as it is in itself, one’s aspiration for the eternal and one’s subordination to duration.

Sound familiar?

And yet, all hope is not lost! Camus adds, “Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth.” In other words, the myth is tragic only when Sisyphus is conscious of his wretched condition – that moment of his descent when he is reflecting on the futile task ahead of him. However, when he accepts this task, surrenders himself to his fate, learns that the effort to push that rock is an end in itself – he is free, and he is happy. Camus explains, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Interestingly, the more one is able to adopt this philosophy, the more she will flourish as a librarian.

A good librarian is a good searcher. A great librarian, however, is a lover of the struggle of that searching. As a librarian in training, working the reference desk, I find that the more I am able to admit when I don’t know, to recognize my limits, the more I am able to savor the mystery of the question and the better I do my job.

January 10, 2009
Vol. XIII Issue 2

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