I stare at the hundreds of early editions of Leaves of Grass. Green spines and brown spines, all with gold-lettered titles rendered in plant-like tendrils, crowd the shelves for yards. I pull down one volume that includes Song of Myself, and find my favorite passage, section six: “A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands…” Quietly at first, I begin to read aloud. Soon self-conscious, I pause to see if anyone is near enough to hear me. No one is; I am alone. I read more confidently through the end of the section. “And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
Since the fall of my freshman year, I have worked at Beinecke, the library that houses the most rare and valuable items in the Yale Collection. My job is to help Pat Willis and Nancy Kuhl curate exhibits for the Yale Collection of American Literature (YCAL). Curating means culling materials from the YCAL archives, which dwell in the basement, and crafting a narrative to tie those materials together. In the basement, however, there is no narrative: a fragment of papyrus lies on a shelf not far from a fifteenth century bible, and a box of nails from Thoreau’s cabin is not much farther. Everything sits near others of their kind, yet the basement gives me the sense that the records of all mankind lie within a ten-foot radius of wherever I stand.
Only Beinecke employees have access to this subterranean floor, which is reached by the elevator behind the Public Services desk on the concourse level. Since the library’s ferocious security policy mandates that not even an employee may take a floor plan of the archives outside the building, the basement must be described instead of shown. Emerging from the elevator into one of four large chambers that take up most of underground Beinecke Plaza, nearly all I can see is white: white linoleum floors, white cement-block walls, the occasional white table stacked with white call slips. Most prominent are the sides of white shelves pressed together to form makeshift walls. White double-faced bookshelves pack together on a floor track, shelves knocking against flanking shelves. Extra space lies between the end of a unit and the wall or a permanent pillar. To access a particular shelf, I rotate the handle at its end to roll it apart from its neighbors, creating just enough space for me and a box to slip by. Each chamber has several rows of units. To reinforce the sterility of the interior design scheme, neon tube-bulbs on the ceiling provide cold, honest light.
One of the chambers contains mostly books, while the other three contain everything that isn’t a book: manuscripts, letters, maps, periodicals, photographs, microfilm reels, broadsides, papyri, music scores, a few paintings, and lots of uncut sheets of playing cards. Everything other than books hides in acid-free gray boxes or, if the material is recently acquired, plain cardboard ones. Throughout the basement, amidst the white of the rooms and the gray and brown of the boxes, huge red fire extinguishers offer hints of color that seem less a relief than a slight threat. Also red are the little wall-mounted maintenance units that keep the atmosphere at seventy degrees Fahrenheit and fifty percent humidity. In the event of a fire, these units would emit halon gas, which depletes the oxygen supply just enough so that fire can’t breathe but people still can. Off of the four main chambers stem a few small maintenance rooms. My favorite is the thirty-degrees below zero “Blast Freezer,” to which all new acquisitions are sent to be rid of worms, bacteria, and lice.
I often get lost. After three years on the job, I can still be found wandering among boxes of playbills when I’m searching for a lantern-slide; I scan Chinese book titles when what I want is a first edition of Moby Dick. Sometimes I am merely not where I am supposed to be. I might poke among the shelves of objects, greeting again the familiar bust of Thornton Wilder, the enormous African drum, the wooden marionettes, and the inexplicable collection of long-necked ceramic cats. Sometimes I explore the books or boxes near the one I’m seeking—yesterday I was looking for a Tennyson manuscript and discovered a box marked “Alexander Pope Collection, Box 1 of 1.” What choice had I but to pause and read a Pope letter kindly requesting that a fashionable lady pay up her debt?
I am typically alone in the basement. Most employees descend only briefly, to secure a particular item for someone in the reading room. With no impatient scholar awaiting my ascent, I allow myself to linger. I feel anxious if another employee spots me delinquently unfolding a vest of Gertrude Stein’s rather than dutifully replacing boxes with call slips. If I interact with another employee, our exchanges are short and awkward. “Excuse me” is the most frequently uttered phrase, since I must navigate around others with the wooden YCAL cart on which I place the loot I have pulled for an exhibition.
Solitude allows me the rare chance to be entirely with my thoughts. “In the whole world, I am the only one at this moment surrounded by plays written in Eugene O’Neill’s cramped hand.” Or, “Nobody knows I am holding and reading a letter from Melville to Hawthorne.” Or even the obsessively literal, “I, Emily Kopley, am clutching a wooden tablet from the fourth century. I cannot read it. It is in Greek.” No one knows these things. Occasionally, proprietary excitement yields to profound spiritual reaction. Sophomore year, I worked on an exhibition of letters written by American writers. While crouched on the basement floor, poking around a low shelf of loosely organized YCAL boxes, I found a folder marked “Dickinson.” I had searched the online database for “Emily Dickinson” and not found helpful results, so this folder startled me. Dickinson has long been a favorite writer of mine—one of those worshipped ones whose past physical existence seems somehow doubtful. I had hardly opened the box when four small, weightless sheets drifted onto my lap. I stared down at the slanted, widely spaced lettering in faded pencil on grayish paper, discerning words with difficulty:
“To the faithful
Absence is condensed Presence.
But there are no others”
I got chills. I felt heady. For the first time I worried that no one else was around— what if I fainted? I did not. And since this poem was part of a letter, I included it in the exhibition. I forgot the call number, and now when I search “Emily Dickinson” on the database, I still can’t find the letter.
Sometimes I wonder about my easy access to all this material. What entitles me to read Zelda Fitzgerald’s letters, with their sad evidence of her mental unraveling? Why should I be allowed to sift through Annie Dillard’s college notebooks, especially when she is still alive? What would Freud think of my analyzing the epistolary psychoanalysis he sent to H.D.? I have not the justification of being an academic researcher—but then, is even this a justification? Actually, it is: these archives, and the exhibitions they feed into, deepen our understanding of history and art. Nevertheless, there is something a bit creepy and voyeuristic about my basement ventures. I must remind myself that most of the collections were given to the Beinecke with the artists’ or their family’s consent. Annie Dillard knows that scholars might be reading her college doodles and lists of crushes. She put them here.
Outside the library, I often feel like a one-woman PR firm for Beinecke, urging my friends to attend the library-sponsored poetry readings, visit the exhibitions, and request archives form the reading room. But what is most thrilling to me about the Beinecke—the basement— cannot be shared. I walk through the basement back to the elevator, having fetched with full hands several acid-free boxes. The condensed presence of hundreds of poets hovers in the air.
Emily Kopley, a senior in Branford College, is on the staff of TNJ.