The romance of research

An academic’s love letter to the stacks, to mark National Library Week.

Now, I’m as appreciative as the next obsessive-compulsive recovering-academic of the vast riches of material becoming available online, thanks to all those Google scanners crouched in the basements of libraries around the world, madly feeding books through their machines.  I download obscure tomes onto my iPad and give thanks to the dual gods Gates and Jobs, singing hymns to all the lesser pantheon of geniuses.

But there’s nothing like a book.

And especially, there’s nothing like an old book, a book with history, a book with dedications on the frontispiece and the occasional comment in the margins.

One of the books I received in recent weeks from Inter Library Loan came in a box, with packing bubbles: oh, the drama in opening that one.  And when it comes to thrilling, I haven’t even brought myself to undo the gift ties from this volume—Christmas in April!

Old books themselves are sometimes the treasure.  That lovely oversized book with many photographs that came to me in the shelter of plastic and cardboard (Many Days in Morocco by John Horne, 1925) included the puzzling:

And in the author’s preface, the statement that yanks a reader for a breath of air nine decades old:

Other times, the prizes inside the wrappings of a book are even more ephemeral.  In recent months, I have found a discarded card catalogue slip left there as a bookmark, a brochure from a hotel whose models wear clothes from the Fifties, and in a book called A Vision of Morocco, by V. C. Scott O’Connor, notes made by some previous scholar on ultra-thin, airmail stationery (hence, in the scans, the obverse leaking through) from a Damascus hotel:

I can see this previous reader, sweating in his Syrian hotel room as he swots up on Lyautey and the Rif War:

Published in 1923, with a book-plate from the Royal Thames Yacht Club in the front (Bookcase 26-27 GEOGRAPHY &C.), later sold for £15 (in pencil, under the annotation Africa) the reader’s first note says:

Resentment at behaviour of lower-class [something] p. 70

When one goes to page 70, the reader sees that what caught this good gentleman’s eye in whatever year he was making his notes might well catch the eye of someone 86 years after the book was published.  In an interview with a wealthy, highly educated Moroccan, “a man of Sherifian blood, a descendant of the Prophet” the author is told:

A lesson for the twenty-first century, as well.  This sort of connection across the generations is one reason why I love my library, and why my books will be the less on the day that I can retrieve everything electronically.

Long live libraries!


  1. Katy on April 13, 2011 at 7:23 am

    Ms. King,
    Your writing, especially on libraries, is one of the things that has gotten me through library school. I am certainly not impressed with my program (one of the top 20 in the country), but hearing you write about your love of research makes me feel that it is all worth it. I graduate in three weeks and cannot wait until I can find a job in a rare book room and see people light up when they find a book that shares such amazing images of the time it was written, of the way the book developed and how we as users of books have changed.

    Thank you,

    • Laurie King on April 13, 2011 at 7:31 am

      Katy–I wish you luck, and a stellar career among the stacks!

  2. Maggie on April 13, 2011 at 10:45 am

    I share both of your feelings. I graduated from my library science program last year (and I didn’t have a very good experience either), and now I am lucky enough to work in an old university library, dealing with some amazing old books. A few weeks ago I came across one from 1762. You so eloquently express my love of books and libraries.
    Thank you,

  3. Mom of 6 on April 13, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    My love of books came from cases full of books at home, which led me to the wonders of the city library. When I was in high school and college, research papers meant actually spending considerable time in a library, as opposed to Googling this and Wiki-ing that. Good times.

    I loved looking through the attached photos. My questions is, is it usual for a book to be checked out/loaned for such an extended period of time? It’s not due back until March 2012. I figure it is because you are faculty (as noted on the check-out slip) and research understandably takes time.

    The handwritten note in the book reminds me of a baby grand piano we picked up at an auction some years back, which came with a business-card-sized label, stiffened with old glue, still attached to the underside, with a turn-of-the-century Dundee, Scotland, address. I wanted to find out everything I could about the original owner, but could come up with nothing more.

  4. bani on April 14, 2011 at 12:21 am

    That is lovely. A message through history.

  5. Aaron Paul Lazar on April 14, 2011 at 6:40 am

    Here, here! Thanks for sharing your treasures with us, Laurie. ;o)

  6. Laraine on April 16, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Yes, Laurie, the romance of research is still with us. I’ve a marvelous wealth of close friends here who are also, wonderfully, superb and published authors; what I’m hearing from them is how they are burrowing ever more deeply into history and ink-on-paper books, while not at all discounting the wonders of the internet. Makes sense to me.

  7. Cate on April 22, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Long live libraries indeed! My offspring cherish their Kindles, an architect friend trumpets the virtues of his post modern house which is entirely without books, and I do not understand. There is nothing like an afternoon in a library or a book shop, nothing like the texture and the fragrance of a good book in one’s hands. No electronic readers for me…

  8. Cate K on April 28, 2011 at 11:26 am

    Thank you for sharing your treasures with us! I visited Marquette’s Raynor Library, which houses original manuscripts by J.R.R. Tolkien. The collection is marvelous! When I was researching the Irish Rebellion of 1798, I requested a memoir by Thomas Cloney. When my inter-library loan copy arrived,I saw it was signed “With the author’s compliments, 1832.” I shivered as I realized my personal hero had held this very book in his hands. It felt like we were linked through time. Amazing!

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