Blogs > Cliopatria > In The Archives

Sep 8, 2006 11:19 am

In The Archives

I'm at the MIT Archives today, not the NYPL, but I, and I imagine most historians, can relate to the following description of our work:
In the reading room of the New York Public Library, the vast mausoleum, designed by some schoolmaster with memories of hard oak, dust and gloom, there are men who sit day after day, bulwarked by stacks of books, scribbling, scribbling in the little pools of light from the green-shaded lamps on the long oak tables, and you look at them and wonder what will-o'-the-wisps they are pursuing day after day, year after year. One of them may be writing a history of dentistry in America, another studying explosives in order to blow up the world, a third gathering evidence that Shakespeare wrote the Bible. Their faces are pale and grim. The only cheerful people in that place are those who do not read the books, but only handle them as they come from the dumbwaiter, and set them on the counter like moldy slabs of beef. Those who sit at the long tables day after day are dedicated men; some of them are brave men. There is death in old books from the stacks of a great library; the dust that impregnates their pages is death and darkness; the dust says, 'These are books that no one have opened for twenty years, fifty years, eighty years; and when you have written your book, it too will gather dust.' White book dust, bone dust; garden dirt and axle grease are clean in comparison; they are living and unctuous; rubbed into the skin, they do good. The dust of books causes blains and hangnails; ingested it provokes dyspepsia, flatulence, and heartburn; in the lungs it is cancerous. Who would not choose, if he could, to sit chained to an oar in a Roman galley, in the sunlight and salt air, rather than in this sunless crypt?

That's from Prophet of the Unexplained, Damon Knight's 1971 biography of Charles Fort. I actually quite like working in the archives--blains, dyspepsia, and flatulence notwithstanding--but it's still a great passage.

(I am put out, though, that MIT of all places does not allow digital cameras in their archives, even though the material I'm looking at is not copyrighted, and my flash-less camera will do no more harm to the documents than the pressure of my eyeballs.)

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More Comments:

Rob MacDougall - 9/11/2006

Scott: Great minds think etc. etc. And that's a nice collection of quotes - not just Chas. Fort but Chas. Portis too. I approve.

Jason: I'm not sure if your reply was meant for me or for David's remark about the NYPL, but just to clarify: I love researching in the archives. Along with holding my baby and, um, pitching woo, it's one of the only things I ever do where I never ever think: "I really should be doing something else right now."

Jason T. Kuznicki - 9/8/2006

Archival research is ridiculously fun. It's embarrassing, personally, that I have been paid to research for months and months at a time.

Seriously, I could count on one hand the list of things that are more fun than archival research. Maybe you're just not studying the right subjects?

As to "dyspepsia, flatulence, and heartburn," well... Most places I've worked -- at least since kindergarten -- have had strict rules about not eating the research materials.

David Lion Salmanson - 9/8/2006

My memories of the NYPL reading room were that the regulars were primarily homeless guys who had to read and stay awake in order to be inside and have bathroom priviliges. Quite a bit different feel.

Scott McLemee - 9/8/2006

I came across that passage in the Fort biography as a kid, maybe thirty years ago, and it left a strong impression.

It was something I made a point then to track down when starting my digital Commonplace Book, where it was among the first things entered a couple of years ago.