Calling All Amateurs!

The school library should house amateurs of every stripe. We seek to inspire curiosity, stoke the imagination, and nurture passionate study. Don’t sell the amateur short.

In contrast to the professional and the expert, a mere amateur could be seen as diminutive and lacking sophistication. However, in The Amateur: The Pleasures of Doing What You Love, Andy Merrifield lauds amateurs as “square pegs” who pursue a meandering zigzag instead of the straight, narrow, and more “professional” path. Through a series of essays, Merrifield aims to reclaim the term as a person who engages in work for the pleasure of it.

To bring together his arguments, Merrifield quotes broadly, including voices like Charles Baudelaire, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edward Said, Guy DeBord, Hannah Arendt, and Jane Jacobs. I love bricolage and am a sucker for “gateway” books—they simultaneously reaffirm bellwethers along your reading history and open up new horizons to explore. In this way, I appreciated this book like I appreciated Anca Parvulescu’s Laughter: Notes on a Passion. They are both promiscuous texts.

In one essay, Merrifield argues against the potentially stultifying forces of schooling, i.e., funneling students into limited professional roles and narrowing down students’ possibilities into a completely measurable world. Pulling from Ivan Illich, he argues that to educate is to “liberate the individual from the obligation to shape his or her expectations to the services offered by an established profession.”

To avoid this stultification, students would be wise to engage in Edward Said’s concept of intellectual amateurism:

…A readiness to withstand comfortable and lucrative conformity, a desire, Said says, “to be moved not by profit or reward but by love for and unquenchable interest in the larger picture, in making connections across lines and barriers, in refusing to be tied down to a specialty, in caring for ideas and values in spite of the restrictions of a profession.”

We see the amateur spirit live in interdisciplinary learning. Amateurs, in contrast to bureaucratic professionals, exhibit “a yearning to live more broadly and interestingly, to be curious and inquisitive, rather than smugly omniscient.” Merrifield demonstrates curiosity as he builds his pantheon to amateur pursuits:

Are we here to be bought off, pacified and numbed? Or are we here to challenge and provoke, to stir ourselves into opposition, into collective, democratic action?

A library can be the place where the entire school congregates and discovers itself as a public. It can be a place to disagree, discover, and delve deeper. Importantly, it needs to be inviting. Merrifield quotes William H. “Holly” Whyte, on what draws people to public places. “What attracts people most is other people.”

People tend to sit most where there are places to sit. This may not strike you as an intellectual bombshell, and, now that I look back at our study, I wonder why it was not more apparent from the beginning… Ideally, sitting should be physically comfortable—benches with back rests, well contoured chairs. It is more important, however, that it be socially comfortable. This means choice: sitting up front, in the back, to the side, in the sun, in the shade, in groups, off alone.

How are you inviting amateurs into your library? How do you encourage the pleasure of learning? Leave your ideas in the comments below.


Author: Mark Dzula

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Professional Development

1 reply

  1. Thank you for this post! Already added the book to my purchase list. Couldn’t agree more. In the past I’ve referred to librarians as “generalists,” but now I see that “amateur” is the term I was looking for!

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