Lessons from an Ivy League Library
Once upon a time, I worked for an Ivy League university near Boston, where my job was to interview and write about students and faculty and their amazing research and findings. (Can you say humbling? How many times I repeated, “Can you explain that again?” And the pity on their faces as they tried to simplify…) After I wrote these pieces about the college’s sciences or graduate students or arts or libraries, I’d then hire a photographer for a day or two to take photos of each the people I’d interviewed, to be published with the articles that we sent to alumni. These photographs made the words come to life.
Those were my favorite days. I got to chat with these wonderful, intelligent students and professors, while “playing” assistant to our photographer. On one of our photo shoot days, our packed schedule focused on featuring the university’s incredibly rich, revered libraries, which are home to treasures that date back centuries. I recall having to put on gloves in order to get close the only existing copy of an exquisitely handwritten manuscript, seeing the texture of its detailed drawings with my naked eye — a book that was normally sequestered behind glass. When I think on the architecture of the buildings, the one-of-a-kind sculptures, the orderly rows of study desks lined up under arched masterpieces captured in the ceilings — I must say, it was a dream.
As we scouted locations for each student or faculty member's shoot, I would make suggestions and my photographer would step back and survey the location. He had an eye, of course. We were a team, but sometimes he’d start setting something up with such focus that I would just step back and trust him.
On this day, he led the student and me into the drab stacks of books tucked off the study rooms, seeing the shelves as the ideal backdrop. As always, he asked me to hold the three-foot-wide shiny disc-shaped reflector that gathered and bounced the light in the room, which I happily did. But the whole time, I was thinking, "Why are we in these dusty stacks? What about the marble lobby with its grand staircase, or the sweeping steps leading up to looming white columns, or the old, wooden study table with dozens of oak duplicates lined up behind it?" I stood faithfully, holding the magic shiny disc, watching him work while I spoke calming words to distract our nervous subject. I knew enough to trust my photographer, but I still wanted to allow enough time to fit in a second (better) location since this one would surely be a flop.
Then he moved his camera toward me, showing me the image he captured in the two-inch window on the back of his fancy digital camera. This is why he went digital, he always said — to get a glimpse of what he just captured, but to also show his clients (yeah, me) proof of what he “got.” As I looked, I didn’t see drab and dingy at all. The disc I held bounced this gorgeous light onto our nervous subject. The words I’d said relaxed his face into a smile just long enough to capture a confident look.
But the background. The background was stunning. My photographer, in his quick assessment of our student, saw the blue in his shirt and found books in a similar blue in these stacks. With his lens and the light, the rows of books looked like a background we’d planned months in advance.
One of the librarians I interviewed talked about the draw of the stacks: the allure of wandering through the rows, and the serendipity of stumbling upon exactly what you needed. My photographer performed that mysterious miracle right in front of me. His knowing eyes saw more than mine did as I stood on the sidelines.
These days, as I look at the backdrop of our current reality, I realize that sometimes, maybe too often, I still focus on the dirt and grime and dust instead of the colors. Like my gaze on the many titles and textures nestled in those stacks that day, my perspective can be quickly overwhelmed by the many voices and views waiting in my scroll. When I’m not careful, the view I see is of an overwhelming layering of problems and unknowns, towering high and stretching long. I can easily overlook the mystery and beauty tucked in the wings, waiting for the gift of a wider lens.
But our Creator sees things so clearly. Where I’m distracted by glitz and glam (“Oh, look at these gleaming steps, let’s stop here,”), or when I reject dull and drab (“Really, here, with the dust?”), He’s focused elsewhere. His focus is both wider and more narrow, as He sees the full picture, bringing beauty from ashes every time.
What if my job isn’t to decide what is worthy? What if, instead of rejecting the dirt and dull I see in the stacks, I focus on His light as it shines? What if I defer to His vision, so superior to mine, as I only glimpse the sidelines? What if I trust the focus of His lens?
Because my job isn’t to decide where He should be.
My job isn’t to dictate where He stands or where He shines.
My job, still, is to just hold the reflector and let Him do His thing.
“He uncovers mysteries hidden in darkness; he brings light to the deepest gloom,” (Job 12:22, NLT).