Friday, November 18, 2005

The Temporary Bancroft Library

One of the joys of historical research is feeling the gravitas of the past. There’s a thrill to holding a yellowing letter and trying to decipher old-fashioned 19th century handwriting. Sometimes you lean in real close to a word to see if you can interpret it, and sometimes you hold the page as far back as your arm will allow – all in a futile attempt to understand the writing.

I’ve been researching 19th century California for six years now for my book on my great great grandfather, Isaias W. Hellman, and in that time I’ve been to some of the state’s most beautiful libraries – the Huntington, with its acres of gardens, UCLA’s rare reading room, with dark carpets and dim lights, and of course, my all time favorite, the Bancroft Library at the University of California, with its huge windows looking out on Cal’s clock tower.

Sitting in the Bancroft reading room is like sitting in a holy place – at least for people who love history. The room is quiet, with only a low murmur from scholars conferring with the reference librarian or asking for new material. A walk around the room reveals people flipping through ancient French texts, illuminated manuscripts, Gold Rush maps and papers from the WPA projects of the Depression. That’s another thing I like about the Bancroft – it’s an egalitarian place. After filling out a form and showing some picture identification, anybody can walk in and look at the materials. The Huntington, in contrast, demands a lengthy application and two letters of recommendation from professors or others with PhDs.

The Bancroft building on campus is not seismically sound and now is being retrofitted to withstand a major earthquake. That’s a good thing. But the library recently moved off-campus to a smaller building on Allston Way in downtown Berkeley, and now all the magic is gone. The new building is much smaller, and can only accommodate about 20 researchers at a time, which means people have to wait to get inside. But that’s not the bad part.

The problem is that most of the book are now stored off-site. This means is you find a book or manuscript you want to look at, IT WILL TAKE TWO DAYS TO REACH THE LIBRARY.

Now I know the Bancroft is doing the best it can under the circumstances, but having to wait so long to look at most materials kills the spontaneity of historical research. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book and found a fact I wanted to follow up. I would then look at the footnote and bibliography and go get that book. The line of inquiry is critical to investigation.

The Bancroft’s current constraints mean this spontaneous research won’t happen as easily. I am sure it will frustrate many scholars working on their dissertations. I have done most of my research for my book, so I can cope with the delays, but I don’t like them. Historical research takes a long time already, and the Bancroft’s new configuration will slow scholars down even more.

There’s no one to blame here. Just seismically-active San Francisco.

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