Thursday, May 6, 2010


I was at the library of the New-York Historical Society yesterday, talking to Joseph Ditta, one of their erudite (and always pleasant) librarians. We were speculating on the forces behind serendipity: why, for example, when you're looking for one thing do you sometimes find another that has been eluding you for weeks, months, even years? Is it the fault of ghosts in the stacks? the books? the research gods? Does it happen only in libraries? And why do ghosts take their sweet time revealing this vital information?

Ghosts have no timetable, no agenda -- although one or two surely must have an axe to grind. In one of the opening scenes in the classic "Ghostbusters," an ancient librarian floats through the reading room of the 42nd Street Library, shushing anyone she sees. Clearly, this was a woman out to spoil everyone's joy!

But I digress. Now that the stained glass windows have been removed from the N-YHS Library (for cleaning and restoration), I wonder what will fill their space for the next year? I'll bet the ghosts of the figures in the windows hang out having coffee, maybe a beer. What happens if you flip on the lights and see the tip-tapping toe of a boot, a shank of hair, a bit of satin from a dress? Can you grab it? conserve it? sell it on Ebay?

I'd love to be the guard that opens up in the morning. Think of the cacophony: the people from the Dutch window are trying to communicate with the French Huguenots from the other window and the French are sighing about how boring it all is! Meanwhile, the Dutch are trying to strike a deal but the French can't sign it because they don't have enough stamps and ink and all the bureaucrats are away, trying to figure out how to pay for the conservation. Completely exhausted, they drop into chairs at a spacious tables and try to figure out who will make the tea and why isn't there enough cheese to go around? And how do we keep the English out -- the Dutch ask. To which the French reply, ah, trop tard, trop tard!

Life is tough in the Library.