In an interview on National Public Radio this morning, the novelist and poet Sandra Cisneros recalled how, as a young girl, she would search out the most darkened and dog-eared cards in the card catalog at her local branch of the Chicago Public Library, and read as many of these books as possible, since they were obviously popular (and therefore, good). This tactile memory triggered in me one of those madeleine moments to which the senescent so often fall prey. I found myself back thirty years ago in the card catalog room of the New York Public Library, where moving from the tray containing Aar-Abe to the tray containing Luv-Mab gave you a palpable sense of the vast physical holdings crammed below and around you. I remembered how often I would come across, among the machine-made cards, a lined index card from the previous century, with a handwritten script today only available for special occasions and at great expense. (That card catalog was chopped up into end tables less than ten years later and given to those who had made a substantial contribution to the NYPL. I remember the first time I saw one of the tables in someone’s home; I think my expression was probably the same as someone seeing their first shrunken head.)
I also recalled tracking down a copy of Velleius Paterculus in the stacks of Butler Library at Columbia University. Their one copy had been printed in Amsterdam in the late 17th century, and still bore the King’s College stamp. In the back was the sign-out card, which traced decades of use by scholars, some of whom were unknown, a few not only known, but already absorbed into what we would have referred to back then as the warp and woof of history. (Perhaps this entry is also the story of the search for unpopular books.)
Of course, even thirty years ago, technological change was barreling down on us at an alarming pace. At Saint Louis University in 1973, we could browse the Vatican Library on microfilm, although I don’t recall too many finding aids; perhaps access has improved since then, perhaps not. Those handwritten index cards had been curiosities for some time. While I might have added my name to the list on the sign-out card for Velleius Paterculus, more likely even then my ID was optically scanned and no physical artifact remains; just my memory. And all the end tables in the world would not persuade me to reverse time. I sympathize with Nicholson Baker’s seemingly inconsolable anger, but it’s not mine. My life is undeniably better now than it was thirty years ago when I first fell in love with the doing of scholarly research.
But Cisneros did make me think about what is lost. Thirty years ago, searching engaged our senses and created memories. Searching was a physical activity, taking place in a specific time and place. We tripped over, time and time again, serendipitously, human remains. I still recall some of what I learned back then, but I also remember the learning long, lazy summer days in the Main Reading Room at the NYPL, the soft whirr of the fans, music floating up and through the windows from Bryant Park, waiting for books to be sent up. Even if Google gives me the information I need, and when I need it, what will I remember? Will I be happy?Posted by Chris Hodge at May 3, 2004 12:44 PM | Links to this post