Have you seen that Twilight Zone episode where the librarian is scolded by his boss for reading books while on the job and yearns for solitude so he can sit and read all day? In the end, everyone dies but him and, like any librarian would, he rejoices that he’ll finally be able to get some serious reading done, but then he steps on his glasses and is trapped in a hell of his own making! Zing! (Presumably, whatever killed all the people also destroyed all the prescription lenses as well. ahem.)
That happens to me all the time. Not the everyone dying part, but the frustration of working with vast numbers of books I’ll never be able to read. Here’s an example: I’m going through a stack of rotting old lithographs from the nineteenth century, the Kleenex held over my face doing very little to protect my sinuses from mold spores only too happy to be freed from decaying bindings and worm-eaten pages. Most of these happen to have been published in India, forcing me to consult with our Urdu specialist about the proper transliteration of the names of the publishing houses. One in particular, Nawal Kishore, has been entered into our catalog under a wide array of spellings, depending on who did it last. The text is a partial manuscript of a divan, (collection of poems). I forget the author’s name. So after we settle on a spelling, our Urdu guy decides to follow it up and, lo and behold, finds a book describing the history of Nawal Kishore. “Goody for me,” he says and takes it home. As soon as he opens it, he runs across the name W. Adam. “That sounds familiar,” he thinks and looking back at the divan, sees the name W. Adam written in ink across the first page. Not one to ignore a challenge, he keeps going and discovers that W. Adam was a former Baptist and later Unitarian missionary (I know, Unitarian missionary?) in Bengal during the 1820’s. He went on to become a professor of Oriental Languages at Harvard. Where, presumably, he left his books. He also did a lot of other stuff, see http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/williamadam.html for the scoop.
My point being, here is something which should be delved into; biographies should be written, correspondence perused, texts unearthed. But will we? Probably not, because we’ve got boxes of books published in the last year piled to the ceiling that need looking after. To work in a library is to sail the sea of knowledge, skimming over vast, unplumbed depths. Every now and again, the light hits the water at just the right angle and far below we can make out vast plains, ruined temples, the skeletons of ships and men. Then the light fades, the surface of the water turns opaque and we keep moving.
One of these days, I’m going to jump overboard and go swimming.