The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

On the List: Naomi

If you love books like crazy, and if you adore libraries, you probably understand that restricted libraries are like speakeasies for geeks.  Regular libraries are cool.  Anyone can enter, borrow a book, and share ideas.  Amazing! 
But restricted libraries are full of books that just some people can read.  Now, Gentle Readers, I do not believe that knowledge should be restricted to the few.  I think that the trend of digitizing manuscripts is fantastic.  Anyone from anywhere can now see texts that were previously only available to certain scholars.  Huzzah for dissemination of the written word!   
But being able to enter a restricted library and look at special copies of books that most people can never see (because they’re too delicate, too fragile, or too obscure) is wicked awesome.  How do I explain why my egalitarian heart beats just a little bit faster when I have a reading pass for special collections somewhere?  It’s like you’re being let in on a secret.  Like you’ll discover something just by turning the pages that most people will never touch.  Like the smell of the book alone will make you smarter. 
It’s a totally geeky high.  Add in a bag check to guard against contraband, white gloves, a weighted fabric snake, and a foam book support, and I am in heaven!  But what really cinches it is that you need a special library card.  You need an ID.  You need to be on the list. 
For some, this thrill becomes passé.  If you work in special collections, I’m sure it’s quite normal.  But I am a Book Geek with Capital Letters and I am still Quite Excited when I get Reading Passes.  But it’s true, Gentle Readers: a girl never forgets her first time. 

The British Library is a wonderful place in a terrible building, like a beautiful soul trapped in the Elephant Man’s body.  One of my friends once described the “new” BL (since 1997) as looking like an industrial Chinese restaurant.  He is spot on.  The BL used to be housed in the British Museum, and had a gorgeous reading room.  I’m sure that housing the books was a total nightmare, and the air must have been terrible for the books, but it was pretty.  Now, not so much.  
The website claims that any UK citizen “with a permanent address who wishes to carry out research can apply for a Reader Pass.”  When I was living in London, I had to have a British sponsor (being an uncouth American).  I was doing a research project on the golden age of British children’s literature, and I was up to my eyeballs in Shakespeare papers.   A Reader’s Pass seemed like a good idea, but frankly, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into.
Downstairs is the library exhibition hall, the café, the giftshop.  In order to access anything in the stacks, I had to flash my Reader’s Pass four times.  1) to get off the escalator on the second floor.  2) to enter the Reading Room of my choice.  3) to order up a book on the computer.  4) to collect the book. 
I cannot begin to tell you how amazing it was to be (an uncouth American.  An undergrad.) able to flash that Reading Pass and swan on by the guard to the Reading Rooms.  A speakeasy for geeks, people.  Secret knowledge.  Many are called but few are chosen.  Name of the Rose stuff, I tell you.
What did I do there, you may ask?  I can’t tell you.  You’re not on the list. 


  1. Ok, I'm there with you - I love handling books that are first editions. When I was at Columbia I was doing a paper on John Locke's printer John Churchill and Steve was doing a paper on Locke's economic theories for grad school and we both ended up in the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library, both asking for the original 1600 something first edition. I bet Steve they wouldn't give it to us, but lo and behold, up from the stacks arose a pristine first edition...and we held in our hands a copy that John Locke probably held. Breathtaking!!!

  2. There is something so sensual about holding book-as-object, especially one that's been held by/owned by/read by so many others. I should have known, Ms. Anne Marie, Librarian Extraordinaire, that this would strike a chord. I'm quite jealous of your fondling of Locke (for research, of course!).