5 Questions: Peter McGivney

By Brian PJ Cronin

Peter McGivney has been a librarian at the Howland Public Library for 30 years.

How has being a librarian changed?

The year after I got my master’s degree in library science, the World Wide Web was invented, making everything I had just learned obsolete. Days with 50 reference questions were common; now on a busy day we get 11. The questions we get now are about local history or how to find information online.

Peter McGivney (Photo by Michelle Rivas)

Do people tend to put too much trust in what they find online?

There’s an entry on Joseph Howland on Wikipedia. How do you know any of that is right? I mean, I know it’s right, because I wrote it. But how do you know that I know what I’m talking about?

Do you have an area of expertise?

Local history. There is no one-volume history of Beacon. People come in and say “My house was built in 1820, I want to learn something about it.” Well, unless your house was built by the Dutch, there’s no book about it. Or people will be looking for information about dead relatives. “My great-great grandfather was born in 1911, why can’t I find his birth certificate?” In 1911 there was no Beacon, so all of those  records are at Fishkill Town Hall.

You’re an avid photographer. What do you look for?

Everybody looks for Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.” It doesn’t take long to figure out that those moments only happened to him. In Beacon, if you’re waiting for one of those decisive moments, you’re going to be waiting awhile. I think they occur on alternate Tuesdays during Lent and that’s about it. Lately I’ve been going into bars and clubs and taking pictures of musicians.

What do you read?

History, mostly. I’m reading an ungodly thick book about the history of the Mediterranean. I did read Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time. The man wrote a book in which nothing happens and he describes at great length the ways in which nothing is happening and how it reminds him of something else that didn’t happen a long time ago. On the other hand, I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when I was 45, and the only awful thing about Pride and Prejudice is that you can only read it for the first time once.