Thursday, September 8, 2011

Electricity among the stacks

Walking up the grand staircases of the Library of Congress, you see marble columns with gilt edging. Important statuary panels line the walls – I like especially the one of a carved angel – shall we say a seraphim? – holding an old fashioned telephone, the kind which you hold the cupped earpiece in one hand and the desktop mouthpiece in the other. That cherub is called the Electrician "with a star of electric rays shining on his brow.” There’s a special viewing window from which one can see the main reading room from on high. The readers below, like so many worker ants, pore over their documents. The library staff moving books around like worker bees – collecting them from the centralized conveyor belt, organizing them by reader onto the main counter, pushing carts around collecting books from the readers’ desks that encircle the circulation center. Then one’s eyes lift above to the profound sayings etched in gold beneath the splendid dome. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Really? As I mull over the reports emerging from North Korea on people’s degrees of starvation. “The history of the world is biography of great men.” Here, the library shows its age – all the names and portraits memorialized in the library are men, the women are representations of the abstract (Truth, Beauty, Electricity). But then, for those toiling away, uncertain of their knowledge, querulous in their grasp of wisdom, there speaks from the walls the words of a cheerleader past, “ The chief glory of every people arises from its authors.” Carry on, then. (Main Reading Room, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress, Washington, DC)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Yenching is not just a restaurant at Harvard Square

As a young student, I grew up reading in the Yenching Library, at 2 Divinity Avenue, in Cambridge. Its location on Divinity Avenue perhaps reminding us of the close connection between the early missionary zeal of American internationalists and the study of foreign regions. Yenching was always dusty, but as a college student, it seemed not dustier than usual film that covered the dorms, the dining halls, the ancient Yard itself, even. The reading room itself was quite workaday. A few long tables stretched out. Magazine stands lining the walls, newspapers in challenging scripts collected across them. And then to enter the stacks themselves, one passed through a small door into a back room, and perhaps down the stairs into the basement. The cornerstones of the Asian Studies literature were built here. (Asian Reading Room, Yenching Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Cool books

At the time of my fellowship in Beijing, air conditioning in the summer time was the exclusive privilege of high end shopping malls, luxury hotels, and haute restaurants. None of the rooms at the CASS American Studies department seemed to be air conditioned; fortunately, they were housed in traditional style courtyards where most offices had a window, and breezes could pass through the halls and corridors. However, in the high rise building of the one of the CASS institutes, there was a library reading room, tucked away on one of the middle floors. It was non-descript in off-white walls, fluorescent lamps, tables, chairs, magazines, but exceptional in its climate-controlled status. I used to visit regularly to partake of the air, not just of the breezes of scholarly concentration. It also housed a good selection of serious magazines, perfect for whiling away the time, imagining how my work could transform the academy, the city, the country, the world, if only the sweat would stop dripping from my brow. (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing)

Monday, June 13, 2011

How to borrow a library

Online I had seen that the Chinese University of Hong Kong had an excellent collection of the serials I was studying and some useful books referencing the field I was plunging into. What a good excuse to go to Hong Kong! I acquired from my professor the requisite letter of introduction to present to the librarian, to show I was indeed a student of good standing, and off I went. To get to CUHK one leaves behind the hustle of Hong Kong’s city streets and the bustle of its noodle shops and merchants. I hopped onto to the train, minding the gap, and headed into the mountains. The city falls away, trees appear. It was winter in Hong Kong, temperature mild by the standards I was used to, but humid. That combined with the general lack of central heating in many places, meant that a chill could creep past ones sweater into one’s bones. The librarian accepted my letter of introduction, I was issued a card, with not too bad a identification photo, and set about my work. (Chinese University of Hong Kong)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Excuse me, Ms. Curator

During a lull in my government work, I noticed the National Gallery was organizing small public seminars at lunchtime. There were never more than a dozen “students,” mostly retired ladies interested or already enrolled in the museum’s docent programs. I suppose this makes me a candidate for such work later on in my years. Homework was involved. There was a reading assignment in advance, and on the two occasions I enrolled, they were always from art books with lots of beautiful pictures inside. I had a lingering memory from my college days of an art history class I took which involved studying the heads of emperors on Roman coins. I had never before nor since formally studied art history, and here I was taking instruction from an eminent visiting professor. She expected us to look at the coin books and coin slides before her lecture; she would discuss in class; then we were expected to examine the images afterward, as they would appear on the exam. As I was a student of texts, I normally visited the library once to do the reading, take notes, hear lecture, then review my notes. Furthermore, my notes were always words, never imagine that sketching an image would be useful. I arrived at my exam, where images were flashed on the screen. I was expected to recognize and discuss them from memory, pictures I had glanced at once for a few seconds, months ago. I was lucky not to flunk. Haunted by this shadow, I headed to the National Gallery’s library to do my homework several days in advance of my lunch seminar. The library is in the East Wing, an edifice of triangular perfection by I.M. Pei and the library reflected this underlying motif. A panel of windows soared from ground to the sky, looking out onto the green Mall. As I signed in with the guard, I could see I was about the second or third person from the public visiting that day. I had been asked to call in advance that I would arrive. I was met by a librarian who asked what book I required. It was available, but in the hands of one of the museum staff; it would be fetched. Dumbfounded, I imagined the scenario. Mr. Junior Bookrunner is sent from the library circulation desk to Ms. Eminent Curator. What could the problem be? A Member of the Public requests a viewing of the Big Beautiful Book which you are using to prepare the Next Blockbuster Exhibit; could you release it to us? Yes! The Member of the Public is so Important, we must release the Big Beautiful Book to her so she can learn about Art and be enlightened Forever. The book was delivered to me; in awe I tried my best to read it, and particularly to look at the pictures, and all in all it was a very satisfactory lunch. (Library, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lobster on E

Luke's Lobster just opened, and I can see that I will be a regular. The lobster roll is sweet with meat, toasty and buttered, with my favorite Ms. Vickie's chips and good root beer. At $17 the combo is not cheap, but the shrimp roll is also good, and a better buy at $10. It only means that I put aside for a moment my predilection for veggies and indulge in beachside picnic fare.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Crossing over, to the other side of the reading divide

Last year toward the end of May, I wandered into the Georgetown Law Library. Actually, I had several dozen books due June 1st, and the library system had begun its annual campaign against me to show up with the real-life books, prove I had not lost them, and then perhaps grant me permission to renew them for another year. Returning to the original subject…entering into the building where the library was housed, is a bit like walking into a mausoleum. There is grey stone receiving area staffed by an alert guard, who will not let me pass until I spend several minutes fumbling through my wallet to discover my university ID – an ID, mind you, that I mostly use in the virtual sense – typing in the numbers to access journals online and read obscure newspaper articles. Once security is satisfied, you pass through to an equally colorless lobby with a high-ceiling and staircases rising into nowhere. Where are the books? The dust? The detritus of scholarly work? Clearly, we are here focused on the rule of law, perhaps with an emphasis on RULE. I find there is yet another set of doors to pass through to find the reading room, and the world is transformed. Rows of tables and chairs, desk lamps, cushioned carpets, dark wood and rich textiles. Yet, there is something unique in the air. The frisson of panic, of adrenaline quietly pumping through the laptops and book spines. It is the exam season and the haggard, bagged eyes, the unwashed hair, the distressed wardrobes of the law students are in full evidence. I back away, lest the anxiety be contagious, grateful that my exam taking days are done and I have crossed over (as we so often do in life, until that final crossing) into my exam giving (and, mind you, exam grading) days. (Georgetown Law Library, Washington, DC)