Getting to the Manuscripts Division of Trinity is an altogether different experience from the tunneling required for the Early Printed Books room, even though they are in the same building. I begin once again at the Admission Desk in the Berkeley Library. This time my letter of introduction, my name in the Dickensian journal and my reader’s ticket fro EPB are not enough; I fill out another form and am issued a business-card-sized pass to the Manuscripts Room. The expiry date is left blank; that will be for the Manuscripts librarian to determine after I do or don’t pass muster.
The next part is the best: In order to enter the Old Library through the front door, the only way to get to Manuscripts, I jump the very long queue for the Book of Kells, then head up some stairs marked, No Entry. The stairs lead straight into the Long Room, the epitome of grand library spaces. Built in 1732, the room is lined floor to very high ceiling with 200,000 leather-bound volumes in an infinity of print. It is wildly romantic in its own way, not like the mysticism of the Hill of Tara but in the wisdom and hubris of attempting to capture an 18th-century ideal of knowledge in one massive, glorious place.
What I should hear when I reach the top of the stairs is a hush of respect, the tap of a librarian’s foot on boards and the slide of one of the ladders being moved, perhaps a quiet discussion among students. Instead, there is the terrific din of perhaps a hundred tourists roaming the room in a way that both belittles and democratizes the space. The tourists are penned in to the center of the room by a double row of velvet ropes and watched over by a line of bored security guards. Ironically, the very reasons for the room’s existence—the books–are now off limits to all who enter there.
When I flash my pass, one of the guards, glad to have something to occupy him for a minute, hops to attention to unhook one of the ropes and let me through. He leads me to a closed door along the back wall and gives me directions. This time I walk down a couple of flights of steps to another basement where I again take an elevator back up to the top. When the elevator opens again the room in front of me is so unassuming that I look around to see if there were another reading room somewhere, but there was nowhere else to go, so I pushed open the door. A cheerful librarian asking me my business (never mind that I had been emailing with several people, possibly including her, for days). I was given another form to fill out—this was the fourth or maybe the fifth—and asked for my letter of introduction.
Oh dear, I’m afraid my letter was left with the Admissions Desk. The librarian looked peeved and said something I didn’t catch about the Admissions Desk staff. I offered to retrieve it and said it hadn’t occurred to me to bring two copies (I mean, who in heaven’s name would bring two copies of this ridiculous letter that anyone cold forge and many probably do) but she said she would request a copy from Admissions ‘for our records’.
If I hadn’t thought before that I had stepped in to a time warp, I no longer questioned that when the librarian told me that there was no photography of anything, period. Anything. I must have looked surprised, because she said they were re-considering the policy but that for the time being, no photography it was.
I sat down and was brought a giant shoebox of records. When I lifted the lid I found hundreds of slips of paper, each about 10 inches wide and 4 inches high, tied together with a long white string. Next I was brought a file folder; inside was a letter. When I reached out to read it the librarian told me to try not to handle it. Since it was written on several sides of folded stationery, she admitted that this would be difficult. In end I was left alone with it, after being given two acid-free strips to mark my place as I marde my way through it, somehow.
A Yeats had written the letter, but it was the wrong Yeats. It was catalogued in the collection of Elizabeth Yeats but in fact was written by her far more famous brother, Willie. It turned out to be a fascinating letter, written by Yeats in the 1890s to a Miss Black. She had evidently sent him some poetry, along with a plea for advice. He answered in a thoughtful and careful manner, and did direct her to send one of her poems, which he named, to an Irish literary magazine, since all poets eventually end up ‘thither’.
As is necessary when material is kept off site (which it is in nearly all large libraries) I had emailed my requests in advance. In order to retrieve each document the librarian would first tap a combination into a locked box on the wall behind the reading room staff desk. As she tapped out the code the keypad played a sort of tune, dah dah dah dah. When she opened the box another sound played, a sort of rising alarm. From this box she would take a key, and then use that key to open a metal cabinet that sat in another part of the room. This is the cabinet that held whatever materials the reader—in this case me—was seeking. Since readers can have only one document at a time, this ritual proved to be depressingly clumsy, not to mention noisy. I tried to count up recently the number of libraries I had worked in—there have been many. I have encountered some tedious rules but I have never seen this level of hysteria over security, as if the library were holding the Holy Grail– instead of some possibly mislabeled nineteenth century letters– and had to continually insure its safety.
Of course Trinity does have what amounts to one piece of the Grail. I’m told that when the conservators turn the page of the Book of Kells, which they do three or four times a year, metal gates go up and the entire building is in lockdown; even the staff can’t use their normal entrances but must go to work via some side door. When I asked a staff member if he had ever seen the pages being turned he said there was not a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening. Lucky, lucky conservators.