Trinity College on a Monday morning in the summertime is a polyglot craziness of tour groups, crowds queued to see the Book of Kells, cyclists, conferees and even the occasional student. Because the campus is enclosed, the experience is more akin to Disneyland than, say, NYU, although the overall effect is more dignified, and no one is trying to cut in line.
I am here to do research in the Berkeley Library, the working library of the college, across the quad from the Long Room and the Kells mayhem. The plaza in front of the library features a sculpture by the Italian Arnoldo Pomodoro. This one is a sphere rather than a disc, but otherwise the spinning metal piece is quite similar to the one on the Mills campus. Passing it, I feel right at home.
Research at Trinity turns out to be like stepping back in time. First, I needed to bring a letter of introduction from my boss, who in my case would be the Provost. Since our interim Provost had been in her office approximately a week, this proved to be trickier than it should have been; she is also not an academic and not used to arcane requests. In the end I wrote and formatted a letter for her signature; even so she had to take it ‘under review’ but I did get her signature the day before I left. I handed in this letter at the front desk, and they checked my name in a Dickensian-style journal—yes, I was in there and had been approved (pending my letter) to work in the library this summer.
In other libraries—even the National Library here—I would have my photo taken and be issued a reader’s card. Here, the librarian picked up a massive date stamp and rolled out a beginning and an ending date to stamp on a yellow slip of paper. She then gave me directions to the Early Printed Books Reading Room, one of the most terrifying paths to Special Collections I have ever encountered.
Once, when I was researching at the Bodleian Library, I was sent to the basement stacks to seek out some issues of the London Illustrated News. I was handed a flashlight and a map and set loose among several acres of pipe-lined low-ceilinged bookshelves. The trip to the Trinity reading room left me with a similar sense of terror and claustrophobia. Immediately after going through the turnstiles (showing my yellow pass for admission) I turned right and headed down some stairs. At the bottom was one of many fire doors that I would encounter along the way—I might get trapped between these doors and die of starvation but at least I wouldn’t burn up. The door led to the tunnel, a warren of turnings, heavy doors, more turnings, and eventually to a choice of elevator or stairs. The stairs, I had been warned, were circular and stone and wound up for several stories. The elevator, the smallest I had ever encountered, seemed even less inviting, but I opted for it, not knowing what lay in store for me on the stairs. The elevator door opened with such gusto that the noise made me jump. I got in, pushed 2, and watching the floors slowly pass by.
At the top I stepped into a familiar space. The Reading Room with its tables and foam book cradles looked like every other reading room except for the grand ones. This one, though, was the smallest I had worked in and there was a casualness about the handling of materials that was refreshing and friendly. I locked up my stuff, set up my laptop, and got to work. As I pored over letters and news clippings (the best kind of primary research) my reading was punctuated every twenty minutes or so by the sound of light clapping coming from somewhere below. The applause, a pleasant tinkling, was from whatever tour group in whatever language was thanking their guide. The squawk of seagulls, which also carried into the room from the open air just glimpsed through the windows, filled in other silences.
At lunchtime I left my laptop in the locker and headed out, this time trying out the stairs. They were narrow, airless, made of stone, completely entrapping and winding on forever. I decided I would take them down but not up; if I had a heart attack on the stairs it could be weeks before anyone found me, but at least taking them on the way down meant that I would cut my chances of being trapped in the elevator by 50%, which seemed like a good trade-off.