Generalists

I’m writing this from our town’s official Cooling Station, the Middletown Springs Public Library. One of the many things I do here in our village of seven hundred is to act as the emergency management director, coordinating responses to larger-scale crises and doing pre-disaster planning. The State urged local communities to establish cooling stations today, with temperatures expected around 90 and humidity that’ll make it feel like 105. So I called our librarian, she said ‘sure,’ and here we are.

I don’t expect anybody will actually take advantage of it, but it’s one of the things you do, and it costs the town ten bucks. If we had businesses in town, people would go sit at a bar and drink beer in the AC, but for us, it’s the general store and the library and that’s about it.

I love libraries. Anybody can come in and hang out for no particular reason. All of the talk about our library is benefits to kids, but we’ve got a guy who comes in to play online chess most days, some older folks who need someone to talk with, a few people who don’t have internet at home and use the ten-year-old Lenovo ThinkCentre in the corner. The library does book talks with local authors, poetry nights, hosts the knitting group, holds candidate forums before elections. Our librarian pulls interlibrary loans, reads voraciously and makes recommendations, builds and culls the collection. The library just makes us all a little bit smarter and a little more civil, both welcome outcomes.

It’s been nearly sixty years since Roger Barker and Paul Gump did their Kansas studies about specialists and generalists. They looked at high schools with 200 kids and high schools with 2000 kids, and found that the small schools rewarded kids who were pretty good at a lot of things, whereas the big schools rewarded kids for being extremely good at one thing. Makes sense. They both have sports teams, student governments, school papers and yearbooks, fundraisers… in a small place, everybody has to do a little of everything, has to be a second baseman AND class treasurer AND in the chorus AND doing page layout for the yearbook. In that way, the schools create the adults who are most valuable in their particular community, the small-town volunteer who can cover almost anything, the big-city professional specializing in one specific expertise.

I miss being a specialist, sometimes. I miss having the depth of academic conversations that are unique to a small group of similarly-trained disciplinary colleagues. But I’m more often glad to have become a generalist, responsive to the needs of my neighbors, sitting in the library on a hot afternoon to make sure that our friends are all okay.