Libraries & Open Stacks: ‘Time Enough at Last’

One of the many advantages to living in Cambridge is the Boston Globe’s regular coverage of Errol Morris, the documentary film maker. (The Globe’s parent paper, the New York Times gives him blog space for long, fascinating essays.)

The Sunday ‘Ideas’ section has launched a new column, ‘Bibliophiles’. Morris is its first interviewee. Asked how he becomes inspired to read a particular book, he answered in part:

I get led through books in odd ways. I mean, I love the stacks. When I get severely depressed, which is fairly frequently, I go to the stacks. Particularly in libraries that are not heavily populated. There are people in the stacks of the Widener Library [at Harvard], but they’re few and far between.

My favorite was the Firestone Library at Princeton [where Morris briefly attended graduate school]. No one went there! It was just empty. And so you were in this dense world of books, devoid of people. It’s a kind of misanthropic dream.

It is a misanthropic dream, of course, given reality by Rod Serling (link to earlier post) 51 years ago this month. ‘Time Enough at Last’ with Burgess Meredith is not the least memorable of Twilight Zone’s amazing first season.

But the pleasures and the rewards of living the dream, especially at Firestone, Morris doesn’t capture.

I spent the stifling summer of 1969 in Princeton. Many nights and every weekend, I took myself to Firestone both for its air conditioning (frigid) and research on my thesis.

Our town and school libraries – both rich by the standards of Appalachian Ohio — had been my second homes in childhood. I had learnt to trust the Dewey Decimal System, the cataloging choice of the time, to lead me to groups of books I might find interesting.

Firestone led me to even greater riches: journals – sometimes generations old – stuffed with fascinating tables of contents and the occasional almost relevant bit of insight. I gained a lasting love for regional and local history and respect for its practitioners.

Thinking about sitting on the cement floor in the Ohio section of Firestone pouring through the publications of the Ohio and Western Reserve historical societies – among many – makes me shiver from remembered cold.

I learnt that summer to do ‘proximity research’, an extension of how I’d approached the stacks from childhood. If I find something relevant, I poke the edges of its source both physically and, of course, through its sources. The digital age has not made this easier, given the limits of Google searches and digital transfers.

One of Princeton’s current brightest lights, Anthony Grafton, is leading an effort to save the Warburg Library in London. Its lodgings and collection are under attack by the trade-school Philistines who’ve gained control of the UK educational system. But ‘Save the Warburg Library’ by Grafton and Jeffrey Hamburger in the Sept. 30 NYRB is also an elegy to open-stack research.

‘Time Enough at Last’: I don’t know anyone bitten by books who’s ever found it.