One of the great milestones of the 20th century has been the proliferation of interdisciplinary subjects as fields for innovation. It is particularly evident in the sciences, for example, biology and engineering combine to become bio-engineering. Sometimes fields can be combined by an individual with one foot in each camp to create fresh perspectives and drastically rethink the entirety of a widely accepted standard. Those are the great successes associated with this interdisciplinary thought, and naturally we celebrate those innovations. Other times these interdisciplinary efforts fall short and come across as amateurish attempts at two separate things simultaneously.
Public libraries have this enormous goal in which we try to be everything to everyone, all at once. We try to work as book/music/movie distributors, social services, theaters and concert halls, the list goes on and on. I don’t want to count us out of any of these services. I’m happy to see public libraries serving as a front-line public catch-all, because a large part of our mission is to effectively refer people to the proper specialized services they need. Hardcore intellectuals: thanks for coming to your public library, for further services you’ll have to look to an academic library. Homeless folk: thanks for stopping by, we will now refer you to the proper agency where you can get help. Movie buffs: glad you enjoyed the film, but you might want to continue your movie-buffish behavior at some art-house theater.
Last night I heard Greg Marshall, the inventor of the “Crittercam”, speak at Cooper Union. The Crittercam was used in the hit movie “March of the Penguins”, and it really is a fun innovation. It is a small video camera strapped to an animal’s back, which radically alters the way in which scientists can observe animal behavior. The camera gives you this simulated version of an animal’s point of view in its daily interactions. All-in-all this was a really fun lecture to watch, but I ran into this same problem with Greg’s presentation: he was trying to be everything to everyone, so he left me feeling only halfway impressed by both aspects of what he does. Greg is a filmmaker and a scientist, but his scientific discoveries really appear to be lightweight happenstance coincidences associated with his filmmaking, and his filmmaking really only catered to his scientific research (and securing funding for more research), rather than an artistic practice.
Now, before I go and criticize this guy’s work, I want to make it clear that I think the Crittercam, Greg Marshall, and National Geographic are awesome. This is not really a direct attack on any of those parties, it is more of an observation of how interdisciplinary efforts can fall flat without subject specific expertise. If Greg had presented in conjunction with a marine biologist who had been able to speak in depth about the ramifications of some of their discoveries, Greg would have gained scientific credibility. Similarly, if he’d brought in Wes Anderson (totally random filmmaker choice), maybe his film clips would have come off as something other than a late 1990s extreme sports video with the Chemical Brothers in the background.
Public libraries are a starting point, again, the front line: we don’t offer expertise (in most cases, there are of course exceptions), we offer suggestions, direction and well informed referrals. Our interdisciplinary nature makes us dabblers and amateurs in any subject area except for the field of information referral and retrieval. The public should look to their neighborhood libraries as introductory portals to their needs and interests, and public libraries really need to present themselves as just that. Greg Marshall’s work was great, but I hope his films inspire a crew of filmmakers to elaborate on his work, and I hope this branch of first “person” animal- visualized science he has created will bring more researchers forward to take it new places. Interdisciplinary approaches are catalysts, not expert-level solutions.