Eli Wise likes to tell this story -- well, he does and he doesn't. He likes it because it epitomizes the high-tech world in which we live today, and he doesn't like it, because, well ...
A friend of his called and said, "My son had a paper to write and I was able to help him get the information he needed, all on the computer, without ever going into a library!"
The issue? Wise happens to be a librarian.
And the problem, he says, is that using only that one process "eliminates a bigger picture; it's a narrow approach to a subject. The Internet is a fabulous tool, but it's an undisciplined resource. It's not accurate, it's not authoritative -- the primary partner is books."
Books are a high priority for Wise -- Eliezer Wise -- who, as a rabbi's son, has spent his entire life immersed in them. Born in Plymouth, Mass., he moved around a lot as a child, though one memory, while he was living in Elizabeth, N.J., remains perfectly clear: "The first time I went into a library was in 1955, in first grade, and I thought it was the coolest place -- all those cabinets and cards in it. All those books -- what a place!"
Wise, 57, graduated as a history major from Yeshiva University in 1971, but it was a rough year to find a job, he recalls: "It was in the middle of a recession, and doors didn't just open."
So he dabbled a bit until he found a job as an administrative assistant in the library at Stern College in New York, where he quickly discovered that he liked what he was doing -- so much so that he began studies in library school at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Master's degree in hand some seven years later, he worked briefly at the Benjamin N. Cardozo law library before landing a job at Gratz College, where he worked in the library for seven years. That's what brought him to the Philadelphia area -- and he's never left.
He did a brief stint commuting to work at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., before then heading to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he served as director of the Mordecai M. Kaplan Library for almost 14 years. Then, in a very full-circle move, the top job opened up at the Tuttleman Library at Gratz in 2001, and he slid into the director slot there.
One of his first projects was to make the library accessible to the general public; as such, he emphasizes that anyone in the community -- Jew and non-Jew alike -- can get a free library card at Gratz and take advantage of its services.
Relieving the Angst
To be sure, when you talk to this man -- a husband, a father of two college-age children, a longtime member of Congregation Bais Midrash Harav in Northeast Philadelphia, where he resides -- everything comes back to books, and the places that hold them and the people who work with them.
"A librarian is a guide," he explains. "And one of the librarian's jobs is to help a person refine a search, help them determine what exactly they're looking for. Sometimes, a person comes in for X, and really wants Y. We're supposed to help relieve the angst, and help direct a person where to go."
Does Wise ever fear for the future of his profession?
No, he replies quickly. "I don't think books are going to go away; the printed word will continue. Especially when it comes to Judaism, there's a traditional way of passing down information, from a teacher to a disciple, through a book.
"But I think people read less; it's generational. I think people age 45 and below read less than those above 45. And I don't think kids read newspapers anymore -- I've been reading a newspaper since I was 8 years old."
He also remarks, in a jovial way, that librarians are like the Rodney Dangerfields of academia. "Librarians are portrayed as stodgy and dated" (think Donna Reed's alter-ego character in "It's a Wonderful Life"). "People think of us only as very strict keepers of information."
But libraries are fluid these days, he insists, what with growing software acquisitions and extensive interlibrary-loan mechanisms. "Libraries go beyond the walls, they are resource centers; their collections are not finite. And libraries are not always silent places -- they can be very social places as well."
For the record, Tuttleman boasts nearly 100,000 books, mainly nonfiction, and subscribes to 150 periodicals. It contains music and nonprint materials, and is working on increasing its children's section. Its oldest works, contained in the rare-book room, date back to the 15th century.
Still, Wise never focuses strictly on the owning of such treasures. "The historic value," he begins, "is really quite impressive, but the material in a book is time-honored, not just the book itself."
"I remember, about 15 or 20 years ago, I was in a Chasidic synagogue in Brooklyn, and a rabbi asked what I do for a living. When he found out I was a librarian, he brought me to an old wooden closet and took out a book that was maybe 300 years old. He said he studies from it every day! That was so wonderful -- that this book is so useful, that it represents a continuum of learning."
Wise works on a similar process himself. He peruses his own stacks at home -- some 1,000 books, filling shelf after shelf. He also pores over Talmud and midrash, and tries to continue to expand his horizons right along with the patrons he assists on a regular basis.
"One of my goals in life," he states with the clarity of a wordsmith, "is to increase knowledge."