The New York Public Library is an oasis in mid-town, a temple dedicated to intellectual pursuits, with wonderful marble staircases, tromp l’oeil ceilings, and those lions that roar every time a virgin walks past. I’m sitting in the main reading room. Amazingly there is free public access and you don’t even need a library card to read a book. Most people are students and researchers, but occasionally tourists walk in off the street, and bums. In his autobiography Bob Dylan talks about how he, when he first got to New York, sat here reading newspaper reports from the Civil War era. That’s right, spread that knowledge around!
I too read old newspapers. I’ve been in hot pursuit of Le Moniteur universel for the last couple of months. Le Moniteur was the official newspaper of the French government and they dispatched a reporter to China in 1860. No historian, to my knowledge, has used this source before. And I know why: at the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris they don’t have a hardcopy left and the microfiche is impossible to read. Much to my surprise, however, there is a copy of the Moniteur here at the NYPL!
The book has to be specially ordered of course, and when it eventually arrives it turns out to be an enormous volume — one meter by a meter and a half. Everyone in the reading room is looking at me as I carry it back to my desk — “there goes a true researcher!” — and one tourists asks me “what’s that big book you’re reading?”
Then disaster strikes. 19th century publications used very acidic paper and it crumbles easily. This is particularly true of newsprint. The NYPL has the airconditioning on — strong fans that whip the air around powerfully enough for many readers to wear sweaters even in the summer. As I excitedly open my old newspaper, the pages crumble and the fans pick up the pieces and lift them high up in the air. Again everyone turns their head. A true researcher no more! My precious source disappeared in a dustbowl.