Monday, 5 November 2012

Gestalt shift

In psychology, a gestalt shift is when your perception suddenly changes. In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein illustrated this with the duck-rabbit illusion: you can see either the duck or the rabbit but not both at the same time. Your brain switches between the two in an instant. Your perception changes. In life, there are longer term gestalt shifts: moments when your perception shifts and suddenly everything has changed. Afterwards, you see things anew and the universe clicks together in a different way (1). I can think of at least two times in my life when these gestalt shifts have occurred and changed everything. 

A German duck / A German rabbit

The first was on the 15th of July 2009 on the day I decided to become a librarian. After an interview for a graduate trainee position at Manchester Metropolitan University Library, I realised I had been more comfortable in that interview room with those other candidates – those library folk – than I had been in many social situations. I gave up a place at law school and completely adjusted my plans in order to pursue a career that felt… right. 

The second was the 18th of July 2012 on a day when I was in Chicago and realised that not only had I survived my trip to America – a trip involving confusion, exhaustion, anxiety, and fear – but I had enjoyed it. I’d enjoyed it more than almost any other experience in my life. By straining at the very edge of my social anxiety, I pushed through the barrier and discovered that I wanted to be around people and do things. 

Since Chicago, things haven’t been the same (2). When I came home, I wrote that I felt like Frodo Baggins at the end of The Lord of the Rings

At the end of The Return of the King, after all his adventures, Frodo Baggins returns to his nice quiet home in the Shire. I always thought that Frodo should be so happy to get home, to write the Red Book of his experiences, and to finally relax after all his hardship. But, Frodo, like his uncle Bilbo before him, finds the Shire changed on his return: or at least, changed for him. He’s seen too much; done too much; suffered and fallen and won. How can you go back to the way things were? How can you ever settle down again? 

That feeling never went away. It seems absurd given all that I’ve done and seen in the past three years but I got into librarianship for the chance of a quiet life. To be left alone with books and infinite curiosity. But experience has changed all that and my curiosity reaches beyond the pages of books. 

A solicitor for whose firm I was doing work experience once told me that I was intelligent and that the curse of intelligence is boredom. He said that intelligent people grow bored easily and that they need – they crave – constant mental stimulation. Otherwise they collapse in on themselves. Since July, I’ve travelled to Sheffield, Edinburgh, Birmingham, and London (several times) in attempts to stave off boredom and recapture the spirit of adventure. Durham – a charming city that I really like – has come to seem too quiet and the North-East has come to seem too empty. When I’ve not been travelling or meeting people or doing things, I’ve been bored. 

Life doesn’t change on its own: you have to make change happen through work, rigour, and intelligence. I’ve worked over the past few months to change things to match my new perception. This has meant a renewed focus on the people in my life, making some personal changes which I don’t want to go into, and making some professional changes which I do want to go into. 

And so, I have several announcements: 

1. I have accepted an invitation to join the Board of SLA Europe as Co-Chair of the Early Careers Committee. I will be taking over from Bethan Ruddock and joining Lyndsay Rees-Jones in organising the Early Career Conferences Awards 2013 (3). 

2. I have accepted a position at the British Library. I will be helping to co-ordinate the Qatar Digitisation Project.

And, as a result of the above: 

3. I will be moving to London. 

I have dreamt of working at the British Library for years. It sounds silly. Some men dream of walking on other planets, some of curing diseases, some of amassing great wealth. Since I read Borges' 'The Library of Babel', I have dreamt of the Total Library (4). The opportunity to work at our main legal deposit library - at the heart of British librarianship - is incredibly exciting. It comes at a point when it benefits me professionally and personally to move to London. And, for the first time in years, I'll be living with other people again rather than on my own: meeting new people and doing new things. 

I've very much valued my time at Durham University Library - particularly the people I've met there. I'm very grateful for the experiences there which have changed me into the person I am now. But it's time to move on.

The British Library at St Pancras in London

Everything is going to change. Gestalt shift. 

(1) For a better expression of this, listen to the song 'Suddenly Everything Has Changed (Death Anxiety Caused by Moments of Boredom)' by The Flaming Lips.

(2) Somehow it seems trite to say this. As if admitting how much that Experience meant to me somehow makes me less because there are people who have been through so much more. But I don’t care. Subjectively it was important. 

(3) A secondary purpose of this blog post is therefore to promote the awards. Look, new professionals! Look at the impact winning the award had on me!

(4) I wrote an essay on the subject for Panlibus and you can read that here. Funnily enough, I did most of the research for that essay in the British Library's Boston Spa Reading Room.


Katie Birkwood said...

Congratumalations, Simon. What an exciting project to be working on. And good luck with the move.

Silversprite said...

Splendid news. It's also quicker, easier and cheaper to nip across to the USA from London than from t'north :-) Hopefully you'll get the chance to checkout some related projects in person.

I am so going to win our bet... :)

Richard Hawkins said...

BIG UPS! (as they say)

Nice one Simon, it'll be good to see a bit more of you and congratulations on your job at the BL.

Anneli said...

Congratulations Simon, and welcome to London! When do you move/start your job?

Simon Barron said...

Thanks everyone! I'm jolly excited.

Anneli: I'm moving at the start of December and probably starting in mid-December. Hectic!

el399 said...

Congratulations Simon, that's brilliant news! London is amazing :o) Good luck with the move - whereabouts are you going to be living?

Simon Barron said...

Thanks Emma. I've no idea where I'll be living yet. Probably North or East London but I'm flat-hunting anywhere.

el399 said...

From experience Islington/Stoke Newington/Finsbury Park are nice in the north. Or if you fancy venturing south of the river
and commuting by train into Kings Cross, Herne Hill & Brixton are worth a look. I miss London!

Sarah Wolfenden said...

Hi, already posted my congratulations on Facebook but just want to say you won't be bored in London if you don't want to be. When you settle down, have a look into the London information and Knowledge Exchange (LIKE). I think it might be right up your street. I've lived in Fulham, Putney, Archway, North Finchley, Tufnell Park, Highgate Village, Kingston and Iver so can help a little with areas. Always go for the nicest area, even if it means the most horrible flat!

Annie Johnson said...

That's great news, congratulations!

Silversprite said...

Further regarding your comments on your American trip; another attempt to nail down IMHO what it is about the US of A.

May you have many more adventures there, as well.