Julia Caffrey

Librarian as Math Student

Feb 05, 2018

Mountain Laurel blossoms open in geometrically shaped blooms Unexpected interdisciplinary connections are always the best.

Last semester, Fall 2017, I took a course in Discrete Mathematics at Towson University, where I work. It is a prerequisite of the M.S. Computer Science program, which I am dipping my toes into while trying very hard not to commit to it in any binding way.

The course, luckily for me, deals in abstract concepts and teaches the language of mathematics, rather than the rote series of arithmetic problems and stupid errors that peppered my earlier math education.

While I did once or twice wish I could remember principles from high school algebra, or kick myself for missing a step, I unexpectedly enjoyed math as a new language through the lens of this course. The concepts were broad enough, and logic foundational enough, that the deeper I explored its symbols and syntax, the more it came alive for me not only as a language, but also as a language shared by the sciences. Maybe I had heard that, thrown around as an axiom, but it became real.

Library and Information Science… at times I’ve reflected on how much of it is more of a service, an art, or a social good than a science. And yet when Boolean logic, basic algorithms, and sets appeared, my mind went back to 5 years ago, in an introduction to boolean searching with Simmons College Library treasure, Linda Watkins (now retired after 35 years).

Underlying library science, several turtles down (and believe me, it is turtles all the way down; okay maybe more like 5 layers of abstraction realistically…), is data, the way data scientists before us have structured it, with mathematical rules and physical constraints applied to it, with functions defining it and manipulating it. It was a privilege to explore those rules and the mathematical principles that underlie them over this course.

Other less flowery observations:

  1. Mathematicians and computer scientists are very literal in conversation for very good reason: math made them this way.
  2. I can do math, write proofs, do logic, and I can do it well and without difficulty. It actually does just require practice, structure, and support. That said I will never be a a mathematician, and I am okay with that.
  3. Patterns in nature fascinate me and I’m not likely to become tired of the subject any time soon. In a way, I think there was some missed opportunity here because my mother is the only educator who has pointed these out to me. That might say more about my education than it does about math itself.
  4. Passing this course will not prevent nightmares about being in high school math classes and realizing you forgot your homework or the exam that day.
  5. The classic Tower of Hanoi computer problem (forgive me for not defining it here), while annoying, is important because it points out that we should be able to calculate how much work is involved in doing something before doing it just to find out.
  6. Math, like other areas, is a body of knowledge, not something we are expected to intuit or recreate as an individual. Otherwise, we would literally be reinventing the wheel!

Would I recommend it to other librarians? Probably not. I think a database management class, or a workshop on APIs and how they are changing life as we know it, might be more illuminating - but if you’re interested in seeing the abstract side of math (which is, by the way, gorgeous and full of symbolism as rich as cake!) – then by all means, go for it.