I spent the day yesterday in the National Library of Ireland, so happy to be back in research mode. My first stop was Special Collections, an unassuming room that reminded me for some reason of Stanford, although needless to say Stanford’s Special Collections is far grander. My interests here were the Yeats sisters, or more specifically Elizabeth (Lolly), who founded the Cuala Press, Ireland’s first private press, in 1902. When I looked up from my work I realized that there were nine men and me in the room, a situation that could be anomalous but that wasn’t entirely surprising.
In the main reading room the gender balance was better. This room has retained its traditional character, reminiscent of the old round reading room in the British Library right down to the desk lamps and the wooden book stands on the researchers’ desks. This room is in fact 3/4 round, with a flattened space at one end and a soaring, pedimented ceiling. Cherubs overlook our endeavors, their white plaster standing out in sharp relief against the two-tone sea-glass paint of the panels. A highly satisfying place to work.
On the drive home in the gathering dark I was trying to remember the libraries in which I have conducted research. The local ones, Stanford, the Bancroft, the Gleason at USF, Mills of course, CSU East Bay when it was still called Hayward, The Book Club of California, the California Historical Society (not enough there, I’m afraid). UCLA Special Collections, Otis College of Art & Design, the Getty, the Newberry Library and the Art Institute in Chicago, New York Public Library, Harvard. The American Antiquarian Society, still my favorite place to work. The British Library (both old and new), the V&A, the Tate Library, the Bodleian at Oxford, where they sent me down to the basement newspaper stacks with a flashlight, a map of the exits and a wave of the hand that meant, good luck—a terrifying place in which you fully expect to come across the bones of a poor academic who got hopelessly lost in the catacombs and was utterly forgotten by the library staff. A couple of small libraries in Italy whose names I have forgotten, another in The Hague. Probably others, although all I can think of now are the places I haven’t worked (Trinity College, Cambridge, anyplace in Paris or Germany).
I suppose I love these places for their familiar environments, even though they are spread out geographically and very different on the surface. It’s a space in which I know how to operate, so there is a comfort to them once I learn to navigate their individual eccentricities, but there is also the excitement of finding the very bit of research that confirms or shifts an idea I was pursuing. There is the material evidence—the thickness of the paper, the quality of the printing, the typeface, the images, the hand-corrected text, the marginalia, the name inscribed on the flyleaf, the bits that are missing. And there is the permission to get absolutely lost in the minutiae of it all, the records and the stories and the reportage and the authority of all those manuscripts, all those letters, all those printed books and drawings and miraculously saved bits of paper that, when gathered, fill out a story that is otherwise lost to us forever but is still and always open to interpretation.