Thursday, April 22, 2010


This stretch of research leave marks the first time since my children were born (more than 7 years ago) that I have had hours to spend in the library poking around. I thought I’d left it behind—worried, even, that I wouldn’t want to be a scholar anymore--but, though the muscles have atrophied, I am gaining strength again and returning to that delicious sense of pleasure in going deep, deep, deep into a bit of reading to see if there’s anything there. I like almost every bit of it: the silence, the mental effort of reading a theoretical essay, the pleasure of skimming something that, in the end, doesn’t fit, and, to my point today, ferreting out little bits of historical research.

Today, after a couple hours of responding to colleague’s writing, I rejected a tedious project (collating editions has still not risen to the place of pleasure. When it does, I think I will have achieved Boddhisathva-hood)—the one I really should do—in favor of opening the cardboard box on my shelf. What was inside?

A bound black volume with COMMERCE TLC p.v. 126 stamped on the inside masked an imperfectly bound collection of pamphlets. How these 12 documents came to live together, I don’t know—and I’m smart enough not to get distracted by the desire to find out. I called this out of its dusty home to consult No. 8: London Municipal Society and National Union of Ratepayers’ Association. The Greater London Traffic Problem: A Scheme for Its Solution. No. 18. London: London Municipal Society. n.d. stamped 1923.

There is some talk in Mrs. Dalloway, in several spots, about London traffic. Most germane for me, Richard Dalloway thinks that something should be done. It occurred to me that a committee on traffic reform is just the kind of thing Richard Dalloway, MP, might be on. Was there such a commission?

Well, it turns out that traffic lights were introduced in London between 1923—when the novel is set—and 1925—when it’s published. So I called up the pamphlet in case it said something about this innovation. It is silent on this score. Instead, for 11 pages, the authors describe all the competing interests and stakeholders in the problem and summarize the reports of other commissions and committees. Unlike other traffic-related documents which mention specific intersections or the problems with buses, say, or pedestrians crossing multi-lane roads, this one never stoops below the level of bureaucracy to describe the street.

How, then, did No. 8 come to be bound alongside No. 2 “Sorelle, R.P. and J. R. Greeg…Teacher’s manual to Secretarial studies (1923)” or “No. 6 “U.S. President, 1801-1809 (Jefferson)..Message transmitting a memorial of the merchants of Baltimore, January 29th 1806” or No. 12 “Review of the commerce of New Orleans. For 1875-76” which begins “The hopes of the trade, freely indulged in last September, have not been altogether fulfilled.”

Indeed. My hopes—for pamphlets on municipal traffic or otherwise—are seldom altogether fulfilled. I will say, however, that it is quietly thrilling to learn that I still really do like the scholar’s life. I just hope there will be more of it again some day.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Thank you for validating the work we in special collections do. I have to say that your post brought a broad smile to my face. I plan to share it with my staff. I wish that your research kept you in our reading room for hours on end!