Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Thrill of the (Paper) Chase: A Documentary Romance

Take One: Bodleian Library, Oxford, England, 1997. Deborah, on a jaunt during her Semester in England, stands chafing at the polite barricades keeping her from the stacks of the Bodleian library in Oxford. Later, when I heard that there were 16th century books stacked up in corners within the library's depths, I felt my heart beat a bit more quickly, and I was jealous of those who had permissions to go in.

Take Two:
Morgan library, New York, 2006. Deborah, on a pre-thesis-on-Thoreau-and-Eliot jaunt to New York with slightly-impatient friends, stands and copies down the information she can glean from the behind-glass pages of one of Thoreau's journals while steaming up the glass in front of them with her breath. Earlier, having had the usual visitor's look-but-don't-touch access to the amazing three-story library room, she wondered whether any of those enticing books were getting read, but by no means felt qualified to figure out whether she could do so.

Take Three: Huntington Library, San Marino, 2008. (This coming Saturday, to be exact.) Armed with the knowledge I've learned in my Archival Theory and Practice class, I know much more, and therefore, having filled out all the necessary paperwork and been granted limited access, I will walk in, show my ID, receive my reader's permit and the three documents I've been given access to, and be able to actually page through them for hours. Sweet victory!

Still, if this is a romance, it will be more like a conjugal visit in prison than anything else--I'm not allowed to take any bags or pens into the reading room, only paper, pencils, and a laptop. I had to tell them exact days that I would be there so I could get access to these materials. If I want photocopies I will need to fill out a form at the end of the visit. All of these specifications...

From the midst of my archival theory and practice class, I understand the need for such precautions--after all, it's important to keep these things in good condition for their preservation. All the same, I find it fascinating that the metaphor I keep coming up against is visiting these documents in prison. I suppose, though, another metaphor would be that of going through all the checks to become a day-long visitor to the White House, to see some of the parts people rarely see on tour. That's probably a more apt metaphor, really, because it is quite a privilege.

And I am looking forward to looking at these documents, making friends with them and seeing whether this pen pal relationship of ours will blossom into something more, maybe even a dissertation chapter. No matter whether this particular documentary flame sparks or fizzles, I'm thankful that takes 4, 5, and 6 are likely to be even happier scenarios. That's important, as I'll likely need to do this down the road again, in both my academic and non-academic writing (historical fiction or non-fiction alike).

As GI Joe used to say in the cartoon of my youth, "knowing is half the battle."


Anonymous said...

Take one: how very Virginia Woolf of you!


Deborah Leiter said...


Why thank you. I'm glad to know I'm not reinventing the wheel, just using it in a new way. :) (I suspected I wasn't the first one to think of that.) Glad you liked it, though...