Friday, May 22, 2020
May 22, 2020: LibraryStudying: Working at Libraries
[On May 23rd, 1895, the project which would become the New York Public Library was launched. So for the 125th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of libraries and library contexts, leading up to a special post on the NYPL!]
On three moments and ways that libraries have helped immeasurably with my research and writing.
1) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: As a Harvard undergrad, I can’t say I took nearly enough advantage of the university’s amazing library system and resources. But at least one project stands out—for the final project for a class on 20th century American theater, I visited Houghton Library’s acclaimed Harvard Theatre Collection, and found a stunning resource: a manuscript copy of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) which featured handwritten comments from legendary director Elia Kazan (who would be directing the play’s first production) and responses from Williams himself. As this New York Times review reflects, Kazan made certain key changes in the play that fundamentally altered its themes, and these handwritten comments revealed the evolution of this debate between two artistic titans. I won’t pretend I remember what I ended up writing/arguing about that debate, but I know it was one of the first moments when I realized the tremendous research potential of our archives and libraries.
2) Gilded Age Literature: It was with my PhD dissertation/first book that I truly took advantage of such spaces and resources. Although I was a grad student at Temple University, I wrote my diss long-distance from the Boston area, and so was able to use my Special Borrower privileges (and I know full well how much of a privilege it is) to get back into the Harvard libraries. Browsing the seemingly endless stacks of Widener Library allowed me to find two largely unknown books that became central to dissertation/book chapters: William Justin Harsha’s Native American reform novel Ploughed Under (1881); and Mary Noailles Murfree’s Civil War/Reconstruction novel Where the Battle was Fought (1884). And returning to the system’s special collections yielded another stunning manuscript that became the sole focus of my concluding chapter: a draft of George Washington Cable’s multi-generational historical novel The Grandissimes (1881) on which the author engaged in extended, impassioned discussion and debate with his editor and two readers about key questions of voice, history, race, and literature.
3) Writing in the Needham Public Library: Since that first book, certain factors (particularly a couple very cute ones, but also teaching and other professional responsibilities) have made it far more difficult for me to get into archives as part of my research. But at the same time, a particular library setting was absolutely crucial to my work on books two through four (and remained a part of the equation for five): I wrote the majority of those books (as well as many of this blog’s nearly 3000 posts to date) at the same table toward the back of the Needham Public Library. Partly that was a matter of convenience—it provided a space that was close to where the boys were in day care and then school but distinct from home, thus offering a perfect combination for my research day when I didn’t have to go into FSU. But I think most writers would agree that routine is an important part of the writing process, and this space became a familiar, comfortable, and eventually important part of my process and productivity over nearly a decade of work. One more reason to love public libraries!
NYPL post this weekend,
PS. Thoughts on this post, or other libraries you’d highlight/celebrate?