One of my favorite things about working in an archive is watching other people using the archive. It's been especially good in this one for the past couple of days because some professor at Bristol has obviously given his or her students a rare books room reading assignment: a small parade of undergraduates has filtered through, one by one, to consult the same two sets of books. Today, two of them coincided beside me for a few minutes and decided to take a few minutes to discuss an essay that they have to write about psychoanalysis and art. I did my best to shoot them a glance that would at least make them whisper instead of talking in low voice. Then again, I was banging away on my laptop, so it's not as though I was being so very quiet.
Later, a young man came in to work on a project about someone who once painted the Avon Gorge. When he came through the door, he said something akin to, "Whoa! Cool!" He had obviously never been in a rare books room before: when he passed through to the office where he needed to sign in, he said, "You have some really old books here!" He sat down beside me at the table, and the librarian handed him a form for ordering books and asked him if he knew the title of the work he needed. Terrifically, he proclaimed, "I don't know anything! I don't even know today's date, to be honest!"
Today the table was full of readers: a man reading huge ledgers, women researching garden architecture, students reading about good women. For the most part, we sat in silence. Every once in awhile, someone would laugh out loud at something only he or she could see. A woman stood on a kick-stool under the fluorescent photo lights with her Pentax, photographing folio volumes full of engraved gardens. Her shutter made an impossibly slow sound.
The things I have come here seeking seem not to exist, something that makes more sense to me as I read more and more letters that talk about how many letters and papers were burned after this particular subject's death. But I've found all manner of other things, and as usual the archive has given me its own kind of direction. Tonight, as I walked home with my box of butter cookies and my tiny wedge of French sheep's milk cheese, I wondered at what point I would know myself to have wandered too far from the track of what is important, what matters: archives have a strange, narrowing, focusing power about them: they make it possible, sometimes all too possible, for me to forget bigger contexts as I go in pursuit of the next piece of whatever puzzle presents itself. But I have a new story to tell, and that, as you know I am fond of saying, is no small thing.
I'm not seeing much of Bristol, though; by the time I leave work, the sun is well down. Today, because the rare books reading room was so crowded, I was forced to sit where I could see a window and watch the light go and go and go.
Here, I have heard three wolf whistles, after years of not hearing any. At least one was for me. It's strange in the West.