The Cure for “Historic Myopia”

“Hi Mrs. Schroeder, I am looking for a book about …” began a Friday night ritual at my hometown’s library when I was about 10 years old. After watching her flip through cards in narrow drawers, I would follow her back to the rows of shelves. There, she would pull a book down, show it to me while explaining its major points. Before handing the book to me, though, she would show me a few other books that she felt might also be of interest to my young mind. Without me realizing it, she was opening doors to exploration that I would have never considered.

FRIDAY NIGHTS AT THE LIBRARY

Going to the library on Friday night was a weekly “reward” that Dad gave me. He expected each of my brothers, sister, and me to work in our family-owned grocery store. Every day, Monday through Friday, we would show up after school and work at the store for about two hours until we closed at 6PM.

In our little town, Friday night was different. The stores—including our grocery—stayed open until 9PM. Dad would let us go home early for supper, and only one kid had to return to the store to work with him until closing. The others were free to do what they wanted.

Being the youngest of the family, though, I didn’t have the permission to go out late with friends. Instead, I would go to the Public Library—it was just down the street from our store and was also open until 9PM.

Besides having the best water fountain in town, the library provided a portal to unlimited possibilities. Walking in the front door past the racks of magazines, there were a couple of soft easy chairs with tables displaying “recent acquisitions.” From the moment you entered, though, you could see the front desk—literally, a desk with a phone and typewriter. Invariably, the librarian, Mrs. Schroeder, would be at the desk, either helping a patron or working on papers from which she would glance up to greet each new guest with a welcoming smile. As you walked closer, you knew she was ready to show you books about people, places, machines, and ideas you never imagined.

There were no hard-and-fast rules restricting how many books we could withdraw that I know of, but Mrs. Schroeder generally understood that a kid 10 or 12 years old was probably good for 3-4 books, maximum. The loan period was for two weeks. Being a slow, focused reader, I generally never withdrew more than two at a time. That meant the book I went looking for—and one that Mrs. Schroeder recommended to me.

IS THIS HOW WE LEARN TODAY?

The internet has opened an amazing world of research, collecting, and contact possibilities. If Mrs. Schroeder were alive today, she would be so excited at the possibilities of what she could share with young would-be scholars. So many years later, I utilize her methods of “looking on the next shelf” for possible paths to new interests.

Between the various electronic communities of forums and Facebook coupled with research hubs such as Ancestry.com or Fold3.com, it is easy to fall into a myopic trap that social scientists are only now beginning to understand. “Thumbs up” and “Likes” have defined what we are served on our computers. More so, the pages we visit, the news we read, the politicians we follow, our church groups, and even our kids’ school e-newsletters are all affecting what unsolicited email we receive or the  pages Google suggests when we use the engine to search for information.

Google and Facebook’s suggestions aren’t masterminded by a bald man behind a curtain, but rather, the result of mathematics. The algorithms used to make a “best suggestion” to us are based on the all those items we receive, open, and look at. In essence, the more we use our computers, the more the mathematics narrows our perspective of the world and others in it.

You have probably seen this play out on your Facebook page. A few years ago, you probably received a lot of suggestions or posts about things you didn’t probably like. By your “unliking,” deleting, or not opening those posts, Facebook was learning what your preferences are. Today, you may not realize it, but you are seeing far less of things you don’t “like” and more things you are probably already supporting or enjoying.

Honestly, I don’t understand how Facebook knows I kayak, shoot 9mm pistols, celebrate the anniversary of the “Battle of Buena Vista,” research WWI Tank Corps history, and wish I could have a pet penguin all while listening to Leonard Cohen and dabbling in beyond-this-world consciousness of mind and energy, but everyone once in a while, it will suggest a story like, “Noted WWI Scholar attends Cohen Concert in Saltillo with a Pistol-totin’ Penguin claims event was ‘Existential’.” How could I not open that post?

But unlike Mrs. Schroeder showing me a book on the Battle of Waterloo, the science behind building a sailing ship, or a “History of Virginia,” when I asked for something about the Monitor and the Merrimack, Facebook –or Google– doesn’t encourage me to look outside of my comfort zone. The formulas these electronic selection devices use don’t allow for “thinking outside of the box.” Rather, they calculate to wrap and seal me inside a box of my own making.

LOOK ON THE NEXT SHELF

It is seductive, darn near life-changing, to think that all information—and all customers—are reachable via the internet. Those helpful algorithms that show us pages or leads us to people who mathematically fits the parameters of our interests, make it seem impossible that something could exist beyond that. And yet, when we react by assuming that everyone else in the hobby is reading the same material or seeing the same ads, we are effectively cutting ourselves off from new information and new business.

Through access to information, other like-minded individuals, and customers, the internet has emerged as one of the widest paths ever available to us. And yet, if we rely on it solely for our research, our contact with other like-minded individuals, or customers, we will shut down the opportunity for true growth within our hobby and quickly go out of business. Just as Mrs. Schroeder tried to impress upon me so many years ago, a myopic approach to anything is the same as eliminating possibilities.

So, push away from the keyboard! Go to an archives and research. Participate in a club show-and-tell event. Climb behind the wheel and drive that OD vehicle. If the hobby is going to grow and survive for another generation, we all have to get out and participate, share, and discover. Who knows, maybe your next great find will be on a shelf that no one else has looked at.

Preserve the memories,

John Adams-Graf, Editor

Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader

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