Library Serendipity II

Cleveland Public Library
Cleveland, USA
August 15, 2014

I was wrong. Once again I had thought I wouldn't be doing any academic research until I returned to Montreal. But, once again--and now in a totally different city--I've spent an entire day at the Special Collections division of a major library. Once again I've tracked down a specific book printed in 19th-century India.

After leaving Chicago I sent a brief e-mail to my academic advisor, Professor P.. My note was regarding a totally different topic (classroom projectors) but I mentioned that I'd had a good meeting with the particular librarian at the University of Chicago whom he'd introduced me to. Off-the-cuff, I added that I'd be heading down to the Cleveland Public Library the next day. The librarian I met with in Chicago mentioned that Cleveland kept a fine collection of manuscripts and printed work from colonial India that had been long-ago donated by a wealthy benefactor. Some of their collection might have bearing on my thesis, he suggested.

Khavar Namah
Bombay, 1897
Professor P. responded quickly with an e-mail message of his own:

"David, hold the phone! If you're at the Cleveland Public Library would it be possible for you to scan a lithograph for me? I contacted them last year but they told me they couldn't do it remotely... "

"Of course, I'd be happy to scan as I can," I replied.

Cleveland Public Library
Special Collection
The next morning I took the train downtown from where I'm staying up in Cleveland Heights. I found the old library right in the city center. It would have been impossible to miss. The building itself was magnificent. Every floor was capped by a high ceiling and each level was connected to the one above by marble staircase. Where I spent most of my time, the Special Collections wing, took up half of the third floor. Atop old card catalogue cabinets there were all manner of beautiful chess sets from around the world donated by some wealthy benefactor who had a chess fetish. I was one of few patrons in the hall that day.

As with my experience in the rare books collection at the University of Chicago a few days ago I was surprised by how easy it was to have a 19th-century book pulled from the archives and handed over to anybody who had just walked in off the street. This time I didn't need to create any sort of account to submit a request. I didn't even have to show identification until the helpful librarian who was on-duty remembered that I ought to first fill out a form with my details and then give up picture ID as collateral while using the item being lent out: a procedure he remembered to carry out only a full 15 minutes after he'd already given me the book I requested.

The Cleveland Public Library's Special Collection division had several advantages over the parallel facility at the University of Chicago. In addition to the ease with which I could request an item and the benefit of having few other people simultaneously using the area there was also an enormous book scanning station that cost nothing to use. Unfortunately, I hadn't remembered to bring a USB drive to save my data. When I asked if I might borrow one the same librarian who was so casual about taking my ID offered me a 4GB stick that he said would be mine to keep.

So, I scanned the entire volume (approximately 100 pages) for my advisor back in Montreal. This time (unlike when I was in Chicago) I knew what the heavy leaden strings kept in a small plastic container next to the scanner were used for. Similarly, there were also handmade-looking beanbags and solid plastic blocks to be used as paperweights keeping the pages open while scanning. The whole process took a couple hours and was thoroughly enjoyable. There was nothing I would have preferred to be doing that afternoon. The previous day I'd already visited the one attraction I was set on seeing before arriving in Cleveland: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Performance Costumes
Worn by David Bowie
I must be on the low end of or maybe even entirely outside of the target demographic for visitors to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Just as I'd noticed over recent visits to an Indian casino and to a bingo parlor, this was yet another place where I was among the younger people in attendance. I chose to visit on Wednesday, the one day each week they keep extended hours into the evening. I spent that entire day browsing the exhibitions which was a lot of fun.

I had never imagined that so many familiar songs began scrawled out on pages of yellow legal tablets and other cheap stationery. First-draft lyrics to songs by the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Jethro Tull, John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen were all on display throughout the enormous building. There were elaborate exhibitions devoted to predictable acts including Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. But, I more enjoyed seeing kitschy stage props and neon guitars used by ZZ Top and artifacts from other lesser bands whose music I vaguely remembered but knew little about.

Civil War Memorial
Cleveland Public Square
There were also nods to contemporary pop stars with minor displays of objects connected with the likes of Lada Gaga, Katy Perry, and Rihanna. But, given that a formal induction requires that a band have issued its first recording at least 25 years prior it's not surprising that I was on the younger side of attendees.

This is my first time visiting Cleveland. That I've finally chosen to pause here now is largely on account of the fact that I now have a friend who lives in town. Just a couple months ago Milana moved here from Chicago to begin her medical residency. It's been great to see a familiar face and to have somebody who can host me for a few days before I head along down the road.

Hookah and Tinto Verano
Chez Milana
Milana is still in her early days of getting to know Cleveland, herself. That's not just because she moved here so recently but more on account of the demands of her work. When I arrived she was right in the middle of the first of two consecutive weeks working 12-hour shifts every day at her hospital. That schedule will carry on through the end of next week. She doesn't have the weekend or any other days off in-between. I arrived at likely the worst moment for her to be social and spend time together.

Despite my inopportune arrival Milana has been a gracious host. We've gone out for dinner after she gets off work every night. That's probably for the best: I'm not great in the kitchen and she doesn't have time to cook. We've taken some easy evenings staying in after dinner just catching up over my hookah and a simple concotion based on red wine, "tinto de verano", that she became familiar with on a recent trip abroad. Yesterday evening we formed a team of two (and did fairly well) at a trivia night held at Edison's Pub: a noisy dive bar. I'm impressed that she's not only willing to host in the thick of such a busy work schedule but also spend so much time catching up and being social around town.

Thanks for hosting and introducing me to Cleveland, Milana! Hope you and Chia-yi can indeed make that roadtrip out to Montreal some month before it gets cold.

Next stop: Buffalo