"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Library stories

Wayne's blog mentions catching me sneaking into the St. Paul Public Library. Other than the librarian who reads this blog regularly (yes, you get a mention, but not by name!), I probably spend more time in libraries than anyone who reads this. The Twin Cities happen to have a fantastic library system, much better than one could expect from a fly-speck village of only 2 million people and it's led to a few anecdotes worth sharing.

My brothers Don and Tom and I have met in the biomedical library at the University of Minnesota twice in the past three years and nowhere else. I'm guessing that that's considered weird by anyone who doesn't know us.

The U of M has two medical libraries, one which almost no one knows exists, as it houses historical items. I was looking for something, couldn't find it, asked a librarian and found out I was in the wrong library. I went to the other one and was surprised to find it had a waiting room (furnished better than my house); I had to fill out a form stating who I was - and show ID to prove it - and why I was there. "Prurient interest" was acceptable as an answer. They confiscated the pen I used on the form - no pens allowed - and, after finding my text for me, allowed me into the reading room. Wish I had more reasons to look up 1895 medical texts, as it's a nice place, if a bit quiet.

I once needed to see a work at another university's library (referred from a separate college library system, including Macalaster, St. Thomas, Augsburg, etc.) and the work was so old, it was brought out in a plexiglas case with holes for gloved hands and I couldn't turn the pages myself, but had to have a librarian stand there and do it for me. That would've been okay with me, but I didn't know what the work was, as my language skills don't cover Latin very well ("Ubi est Gallia?" is as far as I get). It turned out to be ancient pornography. I was torn between the embarassment of having a woman turn pages of old porn for me and embarassment that I didn't know what it was beforehand and had put them to so much trouble, so I should stay for more than a second.

I wanted to see the changes Walt Whitman made between the first and third editions of "Leaves of Grass." Some editions list the variants, but I couldn't find one, but found that the Minneapolis Public Library had both, so I could compare them. I went there and had to ask for them (the stacks have since been opened to the public) and was shown to a special collections room where they were brought to me. They were original, first printings of the first and third editions! These are probably the most expensive things in the entire library. One was signed! How cool is it that they had these and would just let me flip through them?

In my personal reading list, I start with the Ramsey County Public Library system, which is where I also end up during frequent personal computer crashes. The next ring of info is the St. Paul system, whose collections are divided up between branches; the one closest to my house specializes in car repair manuals and that irritates me to no end; all the novels of Anthony Trollope are available (I've read 20 of 30 or so), but all in the branch furthest from me and in a closed stack. The next step is the Minneapolis library, then the Hennepin County, then the other counties in the metro. Then it's on to the collegiate systems. Then it's specialist libraries and these are often the most fun. Yes, fun. Searching Mishnah in the basements of schuls is fun. (You could look it up.)

Sometimes, the book I need is in print, but not available anywhere close. There are methods of interlibrary loan and I use them if I have time. Other methods are sometimes better, though. I once called Uncle Edgar's Book Store (specialist in mysteries) asking for the name of the old French book where a locked-room murder turns out to be perpetrated by the detective and was immediately told, "Murder in the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux. We have it in the (something or other) edition, hardback, $15." After asking if they also had "High Priestess of California" by Charles Willeford, I made a trip there. Money well spent. I like their quarterly newsletter.

There are times when I need some information and don't need the book. Research librarians are a godsend then. My favorite tool of theirs is a network online; I once wondered why priests wear their collars backward - where would one look that up? - and got a very good explanation from a librarian at a Tennessee Baptist seminary. [Essentially, it was the fashion at one time and when fashions changed, people expected clergy not to follow fashion.] When I needed to know who was the pro baseball player who once made four errors on one batted ball (Mike Grady, 1896), an entire community had to be called out to find the answer.

The question I'm most frequently asked is, "How do you know this stuff?" The best answer I can give is: I have my sources. Not everything's on the internet!


Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

I assume "Ubi est Gallia?" means "Is that a sword in your toga or are you just happy to see me?"

When you order up ancient Latin porn, does the old J. Caesar saying become "I came. I saw. [Repeat first sentence, with different meaning for 'came']"?


Don't be coy. Who IS this loser librarian? He sounds like a real putz.

I've only ever read The Warden by Trollope. Not his best - I think his first actually. I also read The Autobiography, in which he reveals his method of composition. AT was not exactly the tortured-soul-waiting-for-his-Muse-to-speak-to-him-type writer. More the, sit-down-with-a-timer-set-it-for-two-hours-and-write-the-whole-time-tilll-it-goes-off-then-just-stop-type writer; which, sadly, produces, to my eye, sit-down-with-a-timer-set-it-for-two-hours-and-write-the-whole-time-tilll-it-goes-off-then-just-stop-type prose. (Not meant as a compliment. Just to be clear.)

Carl Gammon said...

A library with a waiting room furnished better than your house? Oh, come now, how hard could that be? - Just kidding...

Diane said...

Nice post... I enjoyed it. I should spend more time in libraries.