Winston goes to the library

The urge to rescue is sometimes irresistibly strong.  It was a bright December day, early. Winston and I walked to the end of Ogden Road, where it joins the parkway at a right angle, as do many of the side streets in the neighborhood. Across the two lanes, which were busy with morning rush-hour traffic, I saw a big dog, black, pushing its nose into leaves in the ribbon of soft grass and dirt between the sidewalk and road. The dog was so deliberate and calm, staying in place, that it took me a few moments to realize  it was alone. No leash, no owner.

I stood where I was, and I looked up the parkway and down. Winston seemed to look in unison with me, but really it was the motion of the passing cars that fascinated him.  I don’t know if he really looks.

“No, Jane,” I said to myself inside of my head. “You don’t have to save this dog.  Keep going.” I am aware of my desire to help even when it is pathological.  I can resist, I thought.


“Well, what’s a reasonable thing I can do?” More internal dialog. I thought of calling Grace, at home in bed. “Bring me an extra leash,” I would say to her. “We have to save a dog today.” She’s like me and would get excited by such a mission. Still, I didn’t call. I mustered my self-restraint.

Down in front of the library, I saw a man looking up the parkway in our direction, shading his eyes.  I started walking then trotting in his direction.  “Sir!  Sir!”  I was waving my free arm. Winston on leash trotted beside me.  A big man in a blue tshirt (no coat!), with a full head of gray hair and black-rimmed glasses, he started walking toward me. We were the only people outside not in cars; we had to walk toward each other.

“Sir, is that your dog?” I kept yelling as I walked closer. He walked in my direction and didn’t answer. I was confused, not only by his lack of response but also by my own fervor to solve the unaccompanied dog problem. Why couldn’t I just walk away and go home? The dog had at least one other potential rescuer. It didn’t have to be me. Continue reading

Paper, thread, fabric, and glue: be still my heart

sewn pamphlets

sewn pamphlets

It’s winter break, and the MIT community offers weeks of workshops during its Independent Activities Period, or IAP. Some are brief, some occur over days, some help participants build work or academic knowledge, and many are just for fun.

This week, I went to the MIT Libraries’ introduction to bookbinding workshop. To get to the location, I followed a series of signs that began buildings away. In the library, the signs took us into the basement, through the rolling book stacks (‘wait, there’s something behind here?’), into a far corner, and finally into a room which opened into clinical brightness: the Curation and Preservation Services Lab. It was like the secret room in a secret-room dream.

The lab is a model of both warmth and order. The space is about the size of two undergraduate teaching laboratories (or, maybe equivalent to three medium classrooms hooked together). Walls are white. There are several workstations, a few bench height. There is a GIANT paper cutter, and I wish I had a photo of that — the lever was raised, and no doubt you could butcher a chicken with its guillotine blade. Over the sink, the staff had arranged its kitchen implements (e.g. a tea strainer) on the kind of peg board you’d use in a workshop. Everything I saw was in its place and clean. Pinch me.

One the largest workbench was an arrangement of small rectangles of decorated papers and others of solid fabric, spools of linen thread and hanks of colored embroidery thread, and a few tools. On other workbenches were compositions of workshop supplies, one setup for each participant: paint brush, white glue, a cloth paper weight (like a bean bag), a linen wrapped brick, paper to protect the work surface, and paper to sew into a pamphlet.

first steps at making case

first steps at making the case

Some people might get excited walking into a bakery or shoe store. The array of paper and the just-so placement of supplies made this heart beat faster. I also had one of those moments of thinking: It’s so awesome to work at a university. Everything good happens here.

One librarian introduced the workshop and described the purpose of the lab. It’s a “hospital” for the library, and they do both prevention and treatment. The staff also advises on disaster preparedness and disaster response. Honestly, I instantly felt that I was ready to change my occupation. ER for books, people! Continue reading

Be still, my research heart.

At least twice a week, I walk down the long hallway that is glassed on one side with giant windows that look out on the courtyard outside Hayden Library. I look, and I imagine sitting out at one of the tables and reading in the roofless room, enclosed on four sides and open to the sky. Sheltered/exposed. I look, but I don’t go through the door. And no one else seems to. We’re busy.

Finally, though, it’s a beautiful day, and I have an errand taking me to Hayden. Through Google Scholar I have found citations to three published articles relevant to my Elizabeth White project. I get coffee at the Clover truck. I head to the library and go through the door. Others have the same idea: there are two young women, with an open laptop, sitting at one table and talking, and there is another young woman at a smaller table, reading. I choose the steps, sit half in sun and half in shade, read a reprint of a pamphlet written by White, and drink the coffee. Already I am happy, like a bee among daisies.

Coffee done, pamphlet read, I head down to the library basement, where the old bound journals cohabitate on those movable shelves. Down there I whiff the minerals of concrete and dust. The air seems to hum, but only because it’s so quiet, and I know that fluorescent lights are supposed to hum. The semester is over; I am alone.

I find the call number for the citations in National Geographic Magazine. Frederick Coville, the USDA botanist to whom Elizabeth White offered her family farm, Whitesbog, as an experimental agricultural station in the 1910s, published three articles in that decade that will help me with my project. Two are on blueberries: one published before White discovered Coville, and one after White and Coville bred a cultivated blueberry that could be farmed. Another article is on the first World War and the U.S. government’s concerns with the food supply in Europe.

Old books have a sour smell, not unlike the tang of expired milk or the acid of bile. When I was a girl and I would open a book with this particular smell in the library and breathe it in, I would consider it mildly vomit-y. I love this smell, and as I open each heavy book I drink it.

Facing the National Geos are a stack of skinny newspapers. I slide one off the top; it’s Harper’s from 1869. Amazing, I think, that this treasure is out on the shelf and I am trusted to put my human hand on it. It flakes along the fold when I open it wide. Carefully, as though it’s a sheet of glass, I close and arrange it back into place.

My friend Rosemary, doing her own research this summer, offhandedly described her surroundings as “musty old archives,” and reported that our mutual friend, Susan, herself an archivist, first took umbrage at the characterization and then softened: “Perhaps we [archivists] should embrace it.”

Ah, friends, yes. For those of us whose pulse quickens as our steps shuffle down to the library basement, hands open leather-covered and cool pages, eyes delight in the accumulated dust, and noses inhale the sour cloud of old ink while eardrums vibrate with the hum of what is surely our own heart: embrace it all.