Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Special Collections

Every time I go to the New York Public Library, I think--or wonder--if it’s a good job, a well-paying job. The workers there seem unusually friendly, helpful, and competent for people whose job it is to match a call slip with a book, to stamp a call slip with a time, to check a bag for contraband. ''

The friendliness of the regular librarians is matched by the diversity of the public. It is also matched by my terror of special collections.

And the public is truly the general public. On Ash Wednesday, a black man with two huge, flat dreadlocks, one on each side of his head, hanging like the rectangular locks of some barristers’ wigs, approach a beautiful librarian, a black Carribbean woman, asking for the phone book. As I sharpened my pencil, the dreadlocked man returned and, pointing at the ash on her forehead, said, “I noticed that you have the mark of the beast on your forehead. The Catholic Church is the devil…”

As we went on, she smiled, and sweetly said, “Well, you’re entitled to your opinion. The phone books are over there.” When he left, she turned to her co-worker, sotto voce, “Get a haircut.”

This good, warm, and human behavior (polite to the crazies but still enough of a person to let off steam), held, too, when I went to apply for a reader’s card at the special collection within the library, where Woolf’s manuscripts are housed. The librarian was generous, welcoming, and assuaged my nerves. He asked if I intended to consult the manuscripts that day. No, I said, I had too many books with me. Best to return when I didn’t need to leave so much at the coat check.

“Yes. It’s best if you can just bring in a pencil. They’re quite particular there.”

My fear of special collections mounts.

The reference librarian was helpful, too, when I went to see if it could be right that the first American edition of Mrs. Dalloway was available in the general collection and that I need not go to special collections to consult it.

“Yes, that looks right. And if you can avoid looking at their copy, do. They’ll much prefer it.”

My heart is now pounding in my chest.

Still, I rang the bell to enter the special room and was ushered in by a kindly man. This was not, perhaps, going to be so bad. He asked me to sign in, “we live and die by numbers here,” and helped me discover what was becoming clear: for all the great manuscript material they have, they don’t have the books I need.

Well, I told him, once I get the books consulted, I will need to come back to look at the manuscript material. Thank you so much, I said, and I’ll be back in a few weeks.

“Have you spoken to --- ?”

No, do I need to?

“Oh yes. He’s not in today. Let me give you one of his cards. He is the one who authorizes anyone looking at actual manuscripts, not just the cd rom or microfilm. And, when it comes to publication, you’ll need a letter from the Society of Authors. He follows the letter of the law on that. Let me stress that. The Letter. Of. The. Law.”

I am officially terrified to return.

In telling this story to a friend, she informed me that there is, in fact, a whole chapter of a recent novel, Round-Heeled Woman is the book, I think, about how hard it is to get into special collections...I'm relieved and amused to know I'm not alone...


Richard said...

When I was in my late 20s I met Lola Szladits, who was the curator of the Berg Collection, when we were seated next to each other at a National Arts Club dinner honoring Saul Bellow.

She was an amazing woman and I dedicated one of my books to her.

I have a distinct memory of my first time going to see her after we met. She handed me a letter Henry James had written to Leslie Stephen. As I read it, I held it so gingerly that Lola said, "I see you are very respectful towards literature."

"Not so much respectful as scared," I said.

Sally said...

But it will be worth it to see Woolf's handwriting in different colors of ink, to feel (don't tell) the press of the pen on paper! (Something those of us with little hope beyond the microfilms can experience.)

genevieve said...

Wow, Anne, do they have a few Woolf ms there? I'm impressed.

I have been in a university rare books collection once before where they were very relaxed, really - but a large state collection could be quite another matter.
Anyway, no need to fear - think of all that gatekeeping behaviour as contributing towards your scholarship, they have kept themselves nice just for you :)

genevieve said...

I have to say that as far as I know librarians are definitely not paid to be polite, they just are. Partly it goes with the territory these days - serve the customer, or else live in fear of seeing your job disappear - but also they do have a very keen interest in helping you find what you want, they're a bit obsessed with results in that respect, and they usually get more useful information from a customer if they are polite to start with.

Unknown said...

Oh, Richard! Lola is legendary--she had *just* retired when I first worked there. I think this new curator is constructing his own legend of formidability.

But this whole stressful experience does point to a distinction between types of librarians that I've observed: most, as Genevieve notes, work hard to work with people, to help us find the information we seek. I remember in graduate school how excited they would get with my little projects--working on them in my absence, coming up to me with new leads. But then, there are those librarians who see themselves primarily as guardians and preservers of the text.

This latter group puzzles and frustrates me. For whom are they doing the guarding if not for readers?