I’ve spent more time than would seem normal riding the elevator. The library at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) is up on 5; the archive center is down on 1; my office is at LL, the lower level. Because only the staff has access to any but floors 1, 2, and 3, where the exhibits are, where those matching t-shirt visitors roam, I can only get to 5 by elevator.
After I got my main ID badge − following a sticky trudge across the Mall worthy of a story in its own right − I went to get my library card in the NMAH on floor 5. This would allow me to check out holdings only the Smithsonian had, to validate the purpose of my Fellowship (“you can’t find this stuff anywhere else”).
They only recently finished renovations on the building. It’d undergone extensive remodeling that had the place closed to the public for a long time, ending with the grand reopening in Fall ‘08. Most people on the outside think the remodeling is fantastic; I’ve heard grumbling from inside that it’s all wrong, that it ruined the place. What do I know? Last I remember the place it was the ’80s and I all I wanted was ice cream.
For my sake, what the renovation mostly means is this: the library upstairs was split during the remodeling phase due to lack of room, so that half of the materials I’m angling for are now in a special storage area on the first floor through a key-code protected door off the main exhibit area. Room 1028. I feel very, very official when I access that door, pausing so the teenagers sense how important I must be while − with a stern, disinterested face − I nonchalantly enter.
The deal is, this whole sequence leads to a lot of elevation. I’m riding the elevator to the fifth floor to get my library card. Then riding the elevator back down to Floor 1 to enter this super secret room. Then back up to the fifth floor with a pile of too heavy and precariously perched books to check out said books. Then back down the elevator, same books in hand, to my office on LL.
The stack of books is way too high. The chances of me not dropping them are nil. But this up-and-down process is way too cumbersome, so it’s all at once or nothing at all. My only hope is that I drop the stack once I’m already upstairs or once downstairs, not while walking across the public area on Floor 1 or in view of the librarians. It isn’t just not smiling and making sure my chill new orange badge is visible to the bus-riding tourists that defines that walk across Floor 1, but definitely, definitely not dropping this stack of books. There is less danger dropping them in the presence of the security staff; they know me already, or my type, the button-downed shirt wearer with that orange badge that probably shouldn’t try to make small talk about climate change legislation or try to shorthand the LL level as the “Cool J” floor.
But that super secret room. The place where I collect the big stack of books. It’s dark in there. You enter the door after furtively punching in the key code. There’s a set of metal steps up to a second level where the stacks of books are. I walk up and it’s not well lit, but I can’t tell if the lights are inoperable or just poorly placed.
Old empty paper coffee cups sit on a table. A few scattered books lay flat on a cart “to be reshelved.” It’s clear they’ve been waiting a long time for that promised reshelving. I can’t fathom what it must be like to be one of those books. The wait. The loneliness. The broken promises. And it’s so dim in there. It makes me really uncomfortable. Thank god I’m not a book. Though I have to say, maybe the tranquility isn’t so bad. They aren’t refinancing their house, there’s that.
Like a doctor’s office filing system, only larger, rows of shelves are all compressed together to save space so that you spin that wheel to roll the shelf you want away from the others. Oh, except with these, look at that, it’s all automatic, just push the button and the shelf will open a space on its own. This thing is a huge accordion. It yawns and creaks when I push the G-H access button, row 6, parting E-F to the left and I-K to the right, Moses like.
And did I mention it was really dim in there? I’m not for sure I’ll even be able to read the bindings to check the call numbers. But I bring my game face and walk in, squint at the lower shelves, and find the goods, Grocer’s Companion from 1873, Holbrook Farm’s 1887 Seed Catalog, things of that sort. There’s more creaking even once I’m in, and I’m wondering if someone else is coming up the stairs. I scamper back to the aisle…Hello? Hello? No, it’s just the shelves finishing their accordion unsqueeze. And, oh hell, there’s a light switch! I hadn’t seen the light switch. That helps. Now I can actually see.
I’m figuring out the system, smacking auto-opener buttons on row after row, following my checklist and cross-referencing the shelves and building up a healthy stack of books and pamphlets and musty trade journals about butter and fertilizer and all things then claimed to be pure or unadulterated. (I don’t think I said yet, but old images of environmental purity are what I’m after.)
It takes a while. I’m reading through front matter on each item before adding it to my stack. I’m trying to be selective for when I carry these out, but I’m also getting antsy being in here. How come nobody else is in here? I’m thinking it’s the kind of place where accidents happen, where someone gets squeezed between shelves. Even the name, Room 1028, is giving me the KGB willies. I didn’t bring my cell phone − my only watch − so I have no idea what time it is. Maybe it’s dark out. I bet it’s raining.
So guess what? I made it out, don’t worry. It was still sunny. Back into the light, in the exhibit area, I make my way across Floor 1 to the elevator with that precarious stack. Safely. I passed a huge hurdle. Isn’t research fun?
After the up-ride, the checkout, and the down-ride, I’m back near my LL office. Almost there, with just one small hallway to go, here’s the predictable part, because…shit, there they go, there go the books, I drop them. Slow motion, first sliding from the top, then twisting from the bottom, then forget it, they’re all over the floor.
A medium-sized wooden shipping crate sits around one of the corners, looking like a prop from a movie set but left from the remodeling, I’m led to believe. Only two cafeteria guys on break see me knock my shin into it. By all outward appearances they couldn’t care less about the spill or my profanity-laced response. Luckily, there are no librarians anywhere near the scene. Some of the books are pretty damn old, and a few look yet more worse for wear after I drop them. I’ve been careful with everything here, knowing the difficulties of keeping historical materials, knowing the ins and outs of proper archival research − gloves, pencils, no accessories − knowing not to drop stacks of books on concrete floors in the basement of tax-payer funded buildings.
I hope the librarians don’t read this column.