Key 23 and the Nth Degree, part I: My life in library archives

This is the first of a more personal series of blog posts reflecting on librarianship, archives, and the power of words.

My PhD was about the lives of refugees in their adopted countries. I learned a thing or two about libraries then – sending a mate to rummage around in the Library of Congress, visiting the archives of a working German mental hospital, and spending days amid the pungent must of London’s Senate House, where you could still find a corner to sit untroubled on the sixth floor on a November afternoon, walled in on three sides by shelves, books spread across your desk – only half of them really relevant to your topic, the others picked up on impulse or passing interest, looking down on a gloriously cold and lonely darkening winter London.

Senate House, London
Senate House, London – The inspiration for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, allegedly earmarked as Hitler’s headquarters in the event of a Nazi invasion of Britain…

That intense sensory experience, synonymous with loneliness and hard work for me, is a memory so strong that for all its ambivalence it has taken on the quality of beauty. I can smell the vile rows of shelving which Senate House devoted to Hansard as I write this…and I kind of miss it.

At the British Library, I had the epiphany which took me away from a scholarly career. I spent most of my doctoral studies in the Rare Books and Music Room of that modern, swanky building – even once getting to experience the bizarre thrill of a fire evacuation, when the walls open to reveal secret corridors and staircases out to the plaza below.

Truth be told, I barely ever ordered a book that was considered “rare” at the BL, but my friends were all medievalists or historians of the Renaissance, and besides, Rare Books had a certain social cachet compared to Humanities Reading Room 1 and Humanities Reading Room 2.

As postgraduates, we joked about the meat market of the British Library – all those overwrought introverts crossing paths and exchanging glances! – and even I had my own, one, dizzying moment of coffee at 10am, beer at 5pm, her bed by 10pm – thankfully that was with a Rare Books patron, and not a mere Humanities reader, a type we always pictured as a creature out of Hieronymus Bosch. The joke in the pub was: ‘If you go into Humanities 1, you’ll see readers riding pigs; in Humanities 2, it’s pigs riding readers.’

Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights
Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

The reason for braving this postgraduate Grand Guignol every morning was to connect with the lives of people no longer with us. In particular, I spent a lot of time studying Aby Warburg, the eccentric, troubled, yet brilliant German art historian whose private library transmuted over time into London’s great Warburg Institute.

Aby Warburg in New Mexico
Warburg was ahead of the game in so many ways. He arranged his library to encourage cross-pollination of ideas, and worked to promote critical analysis through the juxtaposition of images across eras, particularly between pagan and Renaissance art. He also showed respect for native American culture, expressing a sophisticated appreciation of myth, magic, and belief that was more than just nostalgia for the pre-electric age.

There’s a wonderful Jacob-and-Esau anecdote in which young Aby allegedly traded his place as rightful heir to the Warburg banking clan with his brother Max, in exchange for Max’s promise to buy any book that Aby requested.

Sadly, his mental breakdown at the end of World War I and death in 1929 meant that much of Aby Warburg’s most interesting work was neutralised and downplayed in the interests of seeing the Warburg Institute receive safe harbour in the English-speaking world. After all, it’s a big ask for a British university to take on a crazy German’s research library in a time of global strife…

With the obsessively close focus only a doctoral student can muster, I came to see this subtle loss – the neglect and misrepresentation of a brilliant man’s intellectual endeavours – as yet another wound inflected on humanity by the Nazis and their racist predecessors.

I might not be a librarian, but my work kept me in archives for three years. On the morning of my viva exam, I was in the offices of the Warburg Institute’s chief archivist, begging for an emergency reprint of one of Warburg’s unusual sketches illustrating the relationships between periods of art history through a pen-and-ink geometry.

Letters from the 1930s, scribbles and doodles, typed reports for governments or refugee aid agencies; postcards, desperate pleas for help, complaints about the quality of coffee or cake in Evesham or Christchurch; here were marks on the page which spoke to me, almost directly, of lives actually lived – not fictions or footnotes, but the imprint left in the world by those no longer with us.

I loved the privilege and wonder of tracing those imprints, as best I could, through archival research – but the moment for me to ‘leave libraries’, or academic ones at least, came when I spent three eight-hour days in a row transcribing documents in the Rare Books room. I came home with nerves like frayed cables. I was crazy from too many words, like the dude out of the Chandos letter (the kind of highbrow reference I’m empowered to make by my nine years of university study…and yes, rebel that I am, that is a link to the Wikipedia entry for the Chandos letter).

I told my PhD supervisor at our weekly review and he pursed his lips. ‘You know, a lot of people would kill to have three days’ uninterrupted research, Matt.’

Luckily, I’d already begun running schools programmes for the university and realised there was a place for my skills there, taking learning off the shelves and into more playful spaces. The first time I was asked to speak about Anne Frank to a bunch of 8-12 year olds, I brought photographic albums on the history of anti-Semitism from Vienna, but I also mimed squatting over a wastepaper bin to demonstrate how Anne’s family used the loo when they were in hiding in the attic. It was embarrassing and silly and something I did on the spur of the moment, but the kids loved it and the teachers obviously saw some seed of talent in me. Indeed, a recent post by Elizabeth Bird on the School Library Journal blog points to silliness and the ability to improvise as key attributes of a good kids’ librarian.

Soon I had become a schoolteacher myself – which meant a permanent escape from the archive; more trips to the public library; and a whole new set of experiences and memories revived…more on that next time.

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