Religion in Daily Life, Part II: Hermes is Klepsiphrôn, Athene is Apatouria

For Religion in Daily Life, Part I, see this post.

Building a kharis relationship with professional patron god(s) is an essential part of my practice. All professions have at least one deity. Every profession has its sacredness.

Many of us work in professions that, let’s face it, did not exist in antiquity. When I matriculated into graduate school, I had a problem that few other students needed to worry about: Which deity or deities could be considered the patrons of the library and information science profession.

Libraries in Ancient Greece were often quite small, usually owned by a member of the aristocracy, and had few enough books that they didn’t need a catalog. The problem of discovery surfaced in the Library of Alexandria in much the same way that it did when HTML complicated the Internet: There was now way too much housed in a single place for easy discovery.

I considered several deities. Athene made the most sense to me because she holds a prominent place in the halls of many academic institutions. I wanted to be an academic librarian. Athene has named war, stratagems, and wisdom as her domains, so since that initial decision, there has been a clearer and clearer association between those domains and my profession. Athene is Amboulia (of Counsel), Pronoia (Foresight), Apatouria (Deceiver), and Makhanitis (Contriver), but also Oxyderkês (Sharp-Sighted). Approaching information systemically instead of haphazardly falls cleanly within her domain. I did not originally know about her associations with deception.

Outside of her aegis, there was a hollowness where another god belonged. A library science degree is not about loving books or caring for them. A library science degree is a theoretical and applied approach to the organization of information across multiple forms of objects, along with the best way to obtain, use, preserve, and give credit to that information. It’s a pattern of understanding where to find things based on the way information is organized and how to tease what people want out of the (usually convoluted) ways in which they ask for it.

In the era of Google, a lot of people are embarrassed when they need to ask a librarian for assistance because searching is seen as something that anyone can do by typing a string of words into a text box. It’s actually a lot harder. It requires knowing when to use a search engine versus a proprietary information product. In search engines, successfully evaluating results means that one must know how the algorithm producing them functions, as algorithms have bias. It means knowing how to find bias in a result — and then to assess whether that bias means that the source should not be used.

I decided to honor Hermes for the other part of my patronage. The specific pieces of Hermes’ aegis that relate strongly to library science are Mastêrios (of Searchers), Euskopos (Keen-Sighted), Eriounês (Luck-Bringing), Klepsiphrôn (Deceiver), and Hermêneutês (Interpreter).

All of these may make sense, with the exception of Hermes Klepsiphrôn and Athene Apatouria, without further comment. Both epithets are important because they relate to the pillars of information literacy set down in the new ACRL framework — that authority is constructed and contextual, that information is a commodity even when it is “free,” or that scholarship is a conversation filled with unique and often conflicting voices. As a society, we collectively decide which person(s) and/or profession(s) to which we yield authority on topics, and authority does not make sense without that specific context. In addition, not all sources are reliable or accurate-to-reality. Librarians teach people how to evaluate the authority and accuracy of information to avoid being duped or relying on falsehoods. These gods demand respect because false and distorted information can deceive anyone, especially when it hijacks emotional triggers.

The images for Hermes and Athene are the only religious statuary I have in my apartment because I committed to purchasing them during and after graduate school. For every other god, I rely on sticks bearing the name of the god (which is based on the practice in antiquity of inscribing an altar with a god’s name to ensure that the sacrifice went to the correct person; I posted something about this on Old KALLISTI that was then adapted by people who are actually craftsy).

On Mondays, after I shower, pray to the gods of the household, and give an offering/reading based on the lunar calendar, I pray to Hermes and Athene. They receive a general prayer, which often goes, “I pray to Hermes and Athene, my professional patrons, by whichever name you wish to be called. Thank you for all of the successes you have given me in my work, and may you continue to look on me with favor,” before I light offerings of frankincense.

Beyond the weekly prayer, my profession comes with a code of ethics set by the American association that accredits our graduate programs. I try my best to honor those commitments. The association’s code of ethics was adopted in 1939, and it has received only a few updates since.

The code of ethics can be summarized as calling for a commitment to intellectual freedom and the end of censorship; advocating for equity of access to information across class, race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, &c.; and providing a safe space for our communities to access and learn from information. It also means committing to preserving even the less popular stuff for future generations.

One of the reasons you will find few libraries that have Amazon-like recommendation systems is that libraries started destroying electronic information about what someone had previously checked out of the library so we couldn’t provide those records to authorities. According to our professional ethics, each member of the community has the right to read and a right to intellectual privacy. All we can do is steer lim towards factual information and ask questions to (hopefully) connect lim to resources that le wants.

In a library, one finds conservative viewpoints shelved beside progressive ones. The one exception is that things about science are typically limited to science that is factual, unlike sessions of Congress. Politics is shelved under politics. 😉 While working in the Smith College libraries as an undergrad, I ran into more than one book about women’s genetic inferiority in which previous generations of Smithies had scribbled in the margins. They had been angry, I was angry, but that didn’t mean the book would be removed from the collections. Librarians are against censorship.

At the same time, we are a mercurial profession that may offer pronoun pins to our constituencies at one university or Anne Coulter books in a suburban town, all based on the needs of the local community. (Which isn’t to say that I don’t have public librarian colleagues who cringe quietly while they catalog Coulter.) Many still call people who frequent the library (in person or online) our users or patrons. There is a current within the profession that wants to do away with that and instead call people constituents. Our goal is to represent the community’s needs as accurately as possible when we participate in the information economy, where electronic resources are sky-high expensive and print only serves a limited number of people, with the funds that we have. That community could be a town, a state, a university, a hospital, a corporation, a seafaring ship, a military base — our profession goes everywhere.

All of that means that I tend to be extremely progressive on information issues. I fact-check others habitually in my personal life, which can be disastrous because I (a) sound like Dr. Brennan from Bones and (b) most people only like facts they agree with. (My mother, also a librarian, is even worse. She used to pull out her laptop and fact-check people at the Thanksgiving table.) It doesn’t mean that I (or my mom) am a perfect person. I have my own worldview that I must acknowledge. In the library, though, I treat my work as service-oriented, not me-oriented.

Beyond that, I will pray to Athene and Hermes whenever I have a large project coming up, an important conference, and the like. It is strange, but perhaps appropriate, that the more I worship them professionally, the more my personal life turns towards them. The world I occupy is a world of words, with no absolute guarantees of authority, that requires strategies, vigilance, and ethical commitments to navigate. I’m happy to do so under the aegis of Eriounês and Oxyderkês.

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