Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rip Van Winkle at the Library of Congress

There's nothing like a trip to the Library of Congress to lift my spirits--and to induce me to ponder the upsides and downsides of modern technology.

For those who have never experienced its delights, let me explain that the Library of Congress--and in particular the august Main Reading Room--is a shrine to that now almost obsolete format (or should I say "platform"?), The Book. The high-domed reading room is adorned with such a profusion of ornate marble and imposing allegorical figures representing all things book-related that it can sometimes be hard to concentrate on the actual, usually rather modest-looking, book in front of you.

But the Library's collection is far from modest. It's basically everything that's ever been published in this country, and a lot that's been published outside it--plus unpublished letters, diaries, maps, drawings. You name it. All brought to you on a silver platter (metaphorically speaking) a mere 30 to 90 minutes after you fill out a call slip with one of those tiny eraserless pencils otherwise reserved for keeping score in miniature golf. And all this for free--or rather, paid for by tax dollars. For my money, it's tax revenue well spent.

But as to technology: yesterday I had an experience in the Reading Room that illustrated the ways in which old-fashioned book-related research methods can lead to serendipitous discoveries. I had requested a scholarly article on the Baltimore Almshouse, which I thought might be relevant to the novel I'm now researching (one of my characters is based on an early 19th-century Baltimore doctor who tended to the poor). As it turned out, the article dealt with the wrong time period. But in the same bound volume of the scholarly magazine I found another article--on the Baltimore yellow fever epidemic of 1800--that I eagerly realized was right up my alley. I learned that the predicament of the poor during the epidemic led to the founding of the Baltimore Dispensary, where my doctor was a key player.

What does technology have to do with this? Well, if I'd looked at the Almshouse article online--in isolation rather than in a bound volume with other articles--I never would have come across the yellow fever article.

On the other hand ... after reading the yellow fever article I made my way down the hall to the Microform Reading Room, which is something of a letdown after the Main Reading Room. The last time I was there, perhaps a year ago, it looked like a forgotten broom closet that for some reason had been stocked with recalcitrant, creaky microfilm readers. It still looks like a broom closet, but the old microfilm readers have now been banished to a back room (and the back room of a broom closet is a pretty ignominious place to be banished). In their place stood sleek little black models perched next to equally sleek computer screens.

A friendly librarian, noting my confusion, explained that the new microfilm readers were actually hooked up to the computers: you viewed the images on the monitors, where you could enlarge or darken them or rotate them with the click of a mouse. Not only that, she told me, you didn't have to copy things the old way: by pressing a button that caused the image to be temporarily sucked into the bowels of the microfilm reader, only to emerge as an often illegible hard copy at twenty-five cents a pop. Now you could simply copy the images to a flash drive, take them back home, and insert them into your own computer.

Of course, being a female version of Rip Van Winkle, I hadn't thought to bring a flash drive. But the gift shop stocks them, apparently for hapless souls like myself. I was happy to fork over the somewhat exorbitant price of fifteen bucks--not that bad, really, when you consider the flash drive is a lovely shade of blue and doubles as a souvenir, since it's emblazoned with the words "Library of Congress." After the librarian gave me a crash tutorial in using the newfangled equipment, I spent a few joyful hours stalking, and saving, my microfilmed quarry: The Observer, an obscure weekly magazine published in Baltimore during the year 1807 and edited by Eliza Anderson--the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States and one of the main characters in my novel.

How happy did this make me? I can't even begin to tell you. When I started researching Eliza, I had to transport myself to the Maryland Historical Society library in Baltimore to read the magazine in bound volume form. Oh, they had it on microfilm, but the copier function had ceased working at some undetermined time in the past, and there was no money to fix it. I couldn't even xerox the hard copy pages of the magazine because they were too fragile. Nor could I even use a pen to take notes, because only pencils were allowed in the library. So I spent many hours taking notes on the articles with an increasingly dull pencil (the library did provide an electronic sharpener, which would periodically pierce the silence), and sometimes copying them word for word. Let's just say it was a bit tedious.

Imagine my joy when I discovered that the microfilm was also available just a Metro ride away from my house in Washington DC at the Library of Congress--where they had an actual working microfilm copier, albeit a cranky one. What I really dreamed of, though, was a way of having access to every page of every issue of the magazine at home, so that I could draw on them at leisure in writing the novel. It was hard to predict which pages I would need and therefore which I should copy, but it would have cost a fortune--and taken untold hours--to copy them all. And the idea of buying the reel of microfilm and a cranky microfilm reader of my own crossed my mind, but I quickly dismissed it as unrealistic. Clearly, there was no way my dream would ever come true.

Until now, that is--just a year later. It will take a while, but I can copy every single page of The Observer onto my flash drive and install them on my computer. I'm amazed. But my amazement is nothing compared to what Eliza Anderson would experience if she were to be revived and told that all 52 issues of her magazine--the publication she sweated and slaved over for many hours each week, the source of so much joy and angst, the means by which she made her minor mark on history--could be easily contained within a bright blue object that's only two inches long.

No comments:

Post a Comment