Friday, March 04, 2005

Travels Into The Past

The reading room of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley is a cavernous place, with rows and rows of wooden tables and large picture windows that look onto the towering Campanile, whose clarion bells ring out at the top of the hour.

Serious scholars from all over the United States come to look at the library’s impressive collection of western Americana. But anyone can walk in, register, and ask to look at a map that once graced the hands of a Gold Rush miner.

I have spent many hours at the Bancroft Library researching the history of 19th century California for a biography I am writing of my great great grandfather, Isaias Hellman. They are hours of joy, periods where I am transported through time and space into other lives. I have read through the 1872 city directory of Los Angeles and noted down the address and occupation of many of the people I am chronicling. I have carefully turned the fragile pages of the 1898 report of the Emanu-el Sisterhood’s first Kindergarten and read letters jotted down in the early hours after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Another place I love to visit is the Huntington Library in San Marino, near Pasadena. The library sits on the former home of Henry Huntington, who built the vast Pacific Electric trolley lines that crisscrossed Los Angeles and contributed to its urban sprawl. Huntington and my great great grandfather were partners in many ventures until Huntington’s spending got too reckless for Hellman, a conservative banker.

The estate is beautiful, with magnificent gardens that attract thousands of visitors each month. There are rose gardens, bamboo and Japanese gardens, Australian gardens, palm gardens, water gardens. It is as if Huntington was trying to recreate a piece of each continent in his backyard.

It’s not easy to gain access to the Huntington’s vast collection of European and American books. If you are a scholar with a PhD, you get in automatically. But if you are someone like me, with a mere master’s degree, you have to get two recommendations from approved scholars before gaining entrance.

But once there, the Huntington Library treats you like royalty. A scholar may be writing an obscure text that will only be read by hundreds, but he or she is pampered, honored, and valued. Researchers sit in another cavernous reading room – this one is freezing – and present book or document requests to the librarians. They then scuttle off to secret and mysterious temperature-controlled reading rooms that are completely off limits, and a half an hour later return with the documents.

The last time I was at the Huntington, in November, I poured over Los Angeles court cases from the 1860s and 1870s. They came wrapped in acid-free paper, but as soon as I unrolled them I was transported back in time, to a period where court clerks used fountain pens and had elegant, elaborate handwriting. I read about partnerships gone sour, land swindlers, and unpaid debts.

Looking at old books is like trying to unravel a mystery. I feel that if I can gather enough facts, learn how people dressed, what they ate, where they lived and what they did, I will break through to a new understanding and that the revelation will somehow improve my own life. Holding those documents in my hands is almost like a religious experience. I am so grateful for the librarians and historians of this world who work to preserve the past.

All this said, I have to take issue by a recent article by Michael Gorman, the president-elect of the American Librarian Association. He wrote an LA Times editorial calling into question the wisdom or helfulness of Google's initiative to digitize books. I guess he got a lot of criticism for his attitude so he recently ranted against bloggers, accusing those with a preference for digital conversation of shallowness. Hey, can't we just live in peace? There's room for both long form and short form knowledge. (via Conversational Reading)

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