Today, while I was waiting for an appointment with the eye doctor, I was a witness to the following conversation between an old man (whom prior to this conversation I had silently categorized as being a bit “out of it”) and an optician. This elderly gentleman had been quietly sitting with his wife and both had been just kind of staring into space. The man had oxygen with him, and some other medical support that I can’t accurately identify. They weren’t talking to each other or anyone else, really. And they didn’t look particularly present with regard to their surroundings. Although not verbatim, this was the gist (and the heart) of the conversation that I overheard:
Optician: I need you to sign this paper. Those glasses should keep getting better for you the longer you wear them. (I heard some reference to something or other being “ground” into them, so I’m not sure what adjustment had been made).
Man: (Looking at the paper) That’s my birthday.
Optician: (With a look of polite and indulgent interest) Oh, how nice.
Man: No. That date. On the paper. Isn’t that supposed to be today’s date?
Optician: (Looking more closely now) Yes…
Man: Well, I may be old, but I know two things: I can see pretty well with these new glasses, and today’s not September 27, 1924.
The optician promptly took the paper over to the receptionist for a quick correction and returned, smiling, and somewhat embarrassed. The couple was now actively engaged in conversation with each other and those around them. Laughter ensued.
I don’t know why this struck such a chord with me, but it did.
First, I’m not at all certain that had it been me, looking at that paper with new glasses in my usual, distracted state of mind, I would have noticed that the date was wrong. This 88-year-old man not only had an eagle eye but the presence of mind to point out a not-so-obvious discrepancy.
Second, it struck a chord because I should not have been surprised for one minute that an old man with oxygen and medical disabilities was fully, mentally alert. Shame on me. And shame on me for assuming that silent observation meant dissociation. Obviously, these two human beings have been around long enough to know that silence is sometimes (often) golden, and that idle conversation is highly overrated. They probably long ago learned the value of patience, quiet, and measured reaction.
As they were waiting to leave, the woman made one final comment to those within earshot–“We always say, if we’re not growing older, then what’s the alternative?”
Afterward, what I thought about was this–relevance, a concept we talk about a lot in the library world. Relevance is defined as follows at Merriam-Webster.com:
1 a :relation to the matter at hand
b : practical and especially social applicability
2 : the ability (as of an information retrieval system) to retrieve material that satisfies the needs of the user.
The old man was indeed relevant, in every sense of the word. And libraries, while old, still have the infinite ability to remain relevant.
As long as the people running them have the ability to see, and more importantly, observe.