What has changed about the way we live? Just this: according to James Somers, “There are fewer opportunities, now, to stumble into a world you don’t already know.”
Somers writes this astounding, true statement near the end of his profile of those who work in the archives division of the New York Public Library–quite possibly the most fascinating place any book lover could ever visit.
Thomas Lannon, chief archivist of the place, tells us what we already know: Google has changed the way we go after information. But even more than that, it has changed what information patrons go after. “They only want information based on the information they think they want. It’s important to look outside of your own existence,” he says.
That’s what libraries–from Alexandria, Egypt to New York City–were meant to do: invite us to look outside our own existence, to go beyond where Google tells us to go. The heart of that adventure, no matter how many physical books a library may contain, lies in a library’s archive collections, its treasure trove of public and private documents, letters, maps, journals, diaries, postcards, and interviews. The actual records, in other words, of what people truly did and said (as far as such can be recovered)–the stuff from which books are made in the first place.
Somers mentions a superb book, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker (1974), a study of Robert Moses, an unelected official who obtained enough authority through his civil service job to single-handedly dictate where the freeway system of New York City would go, thereby disintegrating neighborhoods in the five boroughs that had stood for centuries. Moses’s plan served as the model for most of the suburbs that grew up in America’s cities in the 1950s and 60s. Caro wrote The Power Broker based on extensive interviews with Moses himself and on the archives in the NYPL. Such work is often thrilling, as a writer may discover what his or her subject did on a particular day, and use that information to enliven a narrative. Or it may be puzzling, as the writer quickly discovers that people lie in both public and private documents, and multiple sources may have to be consulted in order to find the truth of a matter, or at least come near it.
To read the actual letters written by one’s subject, as I did when consulting the archives of the Shakespearean teacher and editor Henry Norman Hudson in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. in May of 1988, is to come as close as possible to the lives that were here before us. Even if the document in question does not answer the questions we have, and records only the writer’s walk down to the grocer for some milk, its presence says something valuable about the man or woman who wrote it: is the penmanship tiny and crabbed, suggesting stress, or is it bold and flowing, suggesting ease and freedom of thought? What appears to be the mood of the writer? Is that mood different from or similar to his or her other, more public writings? Watermarks may be visible on the actual document, an aid in determining when an undated document was written and how old the paper is. Those watermarks may not be visible in a digital copy.
For all these reasons, and a thousand more, physical libraries and the archives they contain are absolutely essential to the preservation, the development, and the examination of our civilization. The NYPL is one such place; the library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is another. I spent seven happy years roaming the stacks of the main library and many of its satellite libraries. It was the third-largest academic library in the country, the fifth-largest in the U.S., and the fifteenth-largest library in the world when I knew the place thirty years ago and, God knows, it surely has grown even more in the years since. Everyone–everyone–ought to know the pure joy of walking into such a place and pulling out any book–literally, any book–one could want. Such libraries stand as a testament to human endurance and human generosity in making available to us, if we have a good purpose, all the records, bound and unbound, of what we have thought and how we have lived for as long as we’ve been building communities and keeping those records.