Library Serendipity

Mansueto Library
Chicago, USA
August 12, 2014

I hadn't expected to be doing any thesis work until I got back to Montreal. Instead, I've spent an entire day at libraries on the University of Chicago campus. It's felt like a treasure hunt.

Before I left Madison my academic advisor, Professor P., sent me good news: during the last faculty meeting the departmental committee approved my thesis proposal. After receiving his e-mail message I recalled how some of the sources I said I would draw on to compose my thesis were kept at the University of Chicago. Realizing that I was about to pass through Chicago on the way back to Montreal I made the obvious leap of logic. Perhaps my advisor could connect me with somebody there who could offer direction to my research?

Bookworm Damage
After an e-mail introduction and scheduling an appointment I was graciously received by the senior librarian of the South Asia Library, Jim Nye. He spared over an hour of his time talking with me about my project and offering up concrete suggestions for relevant material to explore. I liked not only his welcoming, easy-going manner but the fact that he was clearly so curious about languages of his field. For example, at one point while we were performing a catalogue search a wholly tangential result came up. Dr. Nye pondered the Sanskrit etymology of a word in its title:

"Paśucikitsā... veterinary science...", he muttered. "Now, what's the exact derivation of that word? Oh, of course... !"

After that helpful meeting I was tempted to find lunch somewhere in the area. I hadn't eaten breakfast. I ignored my hunger. There was too much keeping me inside the library. In addition to meeting with the chief librarian my advisor had also recommended that I find a specific title at U Chicago that might be helpful for my research. It was listed as being available only on microform. The original was in the British Library; no digital version had been created. Catalogue number in hand, I wandered between shelves loaded with spools of microfilm and flat plastic sheets of microfiche on the third floor. I couldn't find the what I was looking for.

Weighted Strings
Prop Book Open
I popped my head into a room entitled "Microforms Office" to see if anybody inside could tell me where to look. Somebody working there who I assumed to be a grad student was very helpful. But he too gave up trying to locate the particular title using the record number my advisor had sent.

"Well, let's search for it by name, instead," he suggested.

I gave him the exact title.

"Here it is," he said. "That's in Special Collections down on the ground floor."

"What. Wait. Huh?", I said, thinking there might be some mistake. "I thought it was a microform version that you had here, not the original. It's really rare. It was printed in Calcutta over 200 years ago."

"Could be," the helpful man in the office demurred. "But if so it looks like we also have a copy of that very same book in our Special Collections."

"Okay. That would be great to find it there," I said, thinking it unlikely that the original book would be accessible. If the library didn't have even the microfilm version of the title then what was the likelihood that the physical, printed book would be somewhere downstairs?

Off Campus: E. 53 St.
I made my way down the central staircases to the ground floor. With a surprisingly minimal amount of paperwork (verification of photo ID, creation of an on-line account) I was able to request titles to be brought out from the Rare Books collection. About 5 minutes after I submitted my request the original volume was brought out for me.

It was thrilling to handle the original. Each letter had been stamped out on a printing press using metal type. Even two centuries after publication it was still possible to feel the impression of every word on the reverse side of the page. Though the volume hadn't yet crumbled completely into dust there was significant bookworm damage. Holes were bored through the pages at odd angles. I found a lengthy commentary in the publisher's introduction that should be relevant to my thesis. (A defense of his use of the naskh script in typesetting rather than the more standard nastaliq style that a calligrapher would have used to write text.)

Photos were permitted. I was fortunate that I happened to have brought my digital camera along that day. I initially weighted down the page opposing the one I wanted to photograph with the only heavy object I happened to have handy: my cellphone. It must have been transparent to the staff at Special Collections that I hadn't handled many such books before. After I'd snapped images for several minutes using my cellphone as paperweight an attendant brought over a pair of heavy, weighted strings, offering them to me as an alternative to keep the pages spread. They seemed to have been designed precisely for that purpose. Each had a soft exterior but contained small beads of lead or some similarly dense material running through its length.

Dinner Chez Chia-yi
I finally left at 4:45 PM: right before Special Collections closed. My lucky day at the library came to an end just as Chia-yi was getting off work on the other side of the U Chicago campus. I strolled over to her office from where we walked together to her apartment to catch up over dinner. I mentioned that I was on my way to Cleveland. Her friend Milana has just moved there to carry out a medical residency. They've been throwing around the idea of a roadtrip to Montreal with additional friends this autumn, which I heartily encouraged--though I do question whether they can manage to make it out while the weather is still pleasant.

Now, I'm back where I've been staying over this short visit to Chicago: Aunt Kathy's Oak Park condo. The two of us have gone through some "rare books" here in her home as well. The times I've passed through Chicago this summer we dug through family mementos she's been keeping. A Bible owned by Great Aunt Mary when she was a child had handwritten genealogical details that didn't jibe with those in the standard record. I took photographs of those pages. I really ought to send those images to the relative who has compiled the best family tree data on my mother's side, Esther out in Goshen.

It's been a productive--if brief--three days in town. Now, I should try to catch a few hours of sleep before I take the L to the bus depot for the next leg of my journey.

Next stop: Cleveland