In The Archives

Tags: dentistry in America, quotable quotes, blains, dyspepsia, flatulence.

I’m at the MIT Archives today, not the NYPL, but I, and I imagine most historians, can relate to the following description of our work:

In the reading room of the New York Public Library, the vast mausoleum, designed by some schoolmaster with memories of hard oak, dust and gloom, there are men who sit day after day, bulwarked by stacks of books, scribbling, scribbling in the little pools of light from the green-shaded lamps on the long oak tables, and you look at them and wonder what will-o’-the-wisps they are pursuing day after day, year after year. One of them may be writing a history of dentistry in America, another studying explosives in order to blow up the world, a third gathering evidence that Shakespeare wrote the Bible. Their faces are pale and grim. The only cheerful people in that place are those who do not read the books, but only handle them as they come from the dumbwaiter, and set them on the counter like moldy slabs of beef. Those who sit at the long tables day after day are dedicated men; some of them are brave men. There is death in old books from the stacks of a great library; the dust that impregnates their pages is death and darkness; the dust says, ‘These are books that no one have opened for twenty years, fifty years, eighty years; and when you have written your book, it too will gather dust.’ White book dust, bone dust; garden dirt and axle grease are clean in comparison; they are living and unctuous; rubbed into the skin, they do good. The dust of books causes blains and hangnails; ingested it provokes dyspepsia, flatulence, and heartburn; in the lungs it is cancerous. Who would not choose, if he could, to sit chained to an oar in a Roman galley, in the sunlight and salt air, rather than in this sunless crypt?

That’s from Prophet of the Unexplained, Damon Knight’s 1971 biography of Charles Fort. I actually quite like working in the archives–blains, dyspepsia, and flatulence notwithstanding–but it’s still a great passage.

(I am put out, though, that MIT of all places does not allow digital cameras in their archives, even though the material I’m looking at is not copyrighted, and my flash-less camera will do no more harm to the documents than the pressure of my eyeballs.)