One of the highlights of visiting my sister in Denver was Leah and I got to see where she works. Librarians do a number of things, and part of a library science program can be working with book storage. My sister was lucky enough to get a job at an archive, retrieving old books and microfilm, filing and categorizing new collections, selling or discarding excess texts, and of course, preserving old works. It was fascinating to see the facility, and I’ll try to describe some of the takeaways of the tour she gave us. In some ways stack after stack of books in a dark warehouse could be spooky. To at least me, however, it was a gigantic room of treasures.
First and foremost, the place was big. This book archive consisted of several gigantic, climate controlled rooms. I could go into the details of ceiling height, room length, and stack size, but honestly, it’s just better to envision a Costco divvied up into a few sections (without, sadly, any samples). There were books, as you could guess, but also a lot of other things; cardboard boxes, wooden boxes, cases, cabinets, folder collections, and everything else you’d imagine seeing in a museum. Apparently a lot of donations come in from retiring professors, families of authors, and the general public. They don’t, however, always donate just texts.
In some places there were huge wooden crates, because it is a university library that often stores things that can’t be displayed at the university at a given moment. These things also need to be in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment. The place was spotless, as well as dark when humans weren’t walking around. Boxes and folders were also acid-free. You could tell it was a good setting for preserving old papers, and just in a quick walk through I saw things like leather-bound encyclopedias, almanacs, and diaries, from the 1700s. This kind of thing fascinates me, and reminds me of two different personal experiences.
The first is when I went to Korea back in 2009. There was an interesting thing in the news—a very old Buddhist temple that held ancient texts writings on wood blocks had an indoor climate controlled “naturally.” Air circulated through the “archive” through a complex—but completely un-mechanical—series of vents and columns. Right when I arrived in Korea, however, a local government had decided to update the facility to modern heating and cooling. All of the wooden blocks promptly started growing mold, and they had to shut down the state-of-the-art system before the blocks were ruined. In the end, they reverted back to the time-tested system.
The second thing occurred in the summer of 2016, when I did archival research for my final MA project. I went to a museum in Peabody, MA, to look at papers left behind by Elizabeth Whitman, a woman whose “illicit” pregnancy in 1788 probably inspired the novel The Scarlet Letter. I was given special gloves and tongs, shown how to handle old papers, and then I went to town; reading letters, turning them over, and photographing them. I only learned a bit from the texts, but the experience was like nothing I had had before, and now it makes me appreciate my sister’s job the more. If I wasn’t an English teacher, a career as an archivist? Perhaps, perhaps!
–Jeff and Leah