Libraries, A Love Story
A journey to the Library Of Congress reminds me that tools for thought and the information commons do not just belong to the world of software.
When the British set fire to the U.S. Capitol in August of 1814, devastating the Senate wing of the building and nearly destroying the entire structure, they used the 3,000 books of the nascent congressional library as kindling to fuel the blaze. A few weeks after the attack, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell the government the personal library that he had been assembling in Monticello for half a century—6,487 books in total—as a starter collection that would form the basis of a new, more ambitious Library Of Congress. In January of 1815, Congress paid Jefferson a little over $23,000 to acquire the entire collection, overriding a few objections from representatives who wanted to exempt "all books of an atheistical, irreligious, and immoral tendency" from the transaction.
Many years later, after the passage of the Copyright Law of 1870 required all copyright applicants to submit two copies of their books to the Library of Congress, it became clear that the Library would require its own dedicated building, and work began on a grand Beaux-Arts structure on Capitol Hill. Completed in 1897, it is now known as the Jefferson Building.
About a month ago, I was at home in Brooklyn digging around for information about a major character in the new book I’m writing. I’d been a little worried about this particular individual for a while, because he happens to be central to the narrative, but the other figures around him in the story have much more extensively documented lives—each of them wrote lengthy autobiographies, and each has been the subject of voluminous scholarly research. And so I was worried that there would be a kind of asymmetry at the heart of my book: that I’d have all this intimate detail about the lives of most of the primary characters, but this one figure would inevitably be undeveloped, a bit of a cipher by comparison.
And then one day, following a long meandering trail of search queries and links, I discovered that my mysterious character had left a trove of personal documents—everything from official government memos to a high school diary to a scrapbook of newspaper clippings—now housed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. (If you’ve ever worked on a big research project like a work of historical nonfiction, you’ll know how exhilarating those moments can be.) And that’s how I found myself this past Monday—my birthday as it turns out—traveling down to DC to pay a visit to the library that Thomas Jefferson helped seed so many years ago.
So much of what I’ve written here at Adjacent Possible has revolved around various forms of information management and discovery, but as I was taking the Metro from my parent’s house in DC down to Capitol Hill, it occurred to me that almost all of that discussion has focused on software tools: Scrivener, ReadWise, Roam—and my latest find, Aeon Timeline. I’ve touched on a few older, analog traditions, like the commonplace book or the slip-box. But even in our networked age, there is still something magical to me about the physical institution of a library, something uniquely inspiring. We create tools to help us think or remember more effectively, but we also create spaces that serve those same purposes—libraries most of all.
A good number of my most memorable moments as a writer happened in libraries. When I was writing The Ghost Map, my book about John Snow’s discovery of the waterborne nature of cholera, I had always imagined that the book would end with the two main protagonists who were thrown together by the disease outbreak—the taciturn physician Snow and the sociable priest Henry Whitehead—becoming lifelong friends despite their many differences. It just seemed like a natural outcome for the narrative. But for more than a year, as I was researching and then writing the book, I couldn’t find any evidence in the historical record to support the idea that they remained friends. I actually wrote a version of the ending that had some kind of tortured phrasing like, “One can readily imagine that the two men formed a bond during those terrible days…” And then one day, working in the majestic 5th Avenue main branch of the New York Public Library, I managed to track down an obscure autobiography that Whitehead had published at the end of his life, which noted that he had kept a portrait of Snow in his library for decades after the physician died, to remind him of the time that they had spent together in the streets of Soho. I remember tears coming to my eyes as I read the passage, and it took some real restraint not to alarm all the other visitors to the Reading Room by shouting out, “I knew it! They were friends!”
My expedition this week turned out not to be quite as revelatory as that trip to the NYPL; the collection of papers gave me some wonderful color on my character’s early life, but it was missing documents from a later stretch of his career that will be central to the story I’m telling. So there are still some pieces of the puzzle that I have to find elsewhere. But the whole experience with the Library system was exemplary. When I initially emailed them about getting access to the collection, I’d received a note back within minutes saying that the documents were stored on site and that I’d be welcome to visit any time, without an appointment. It turned out that the documents had been transferred to microfilm many years ago, but the Library has new microfilm readers attached to Windows PCs so you can capture PDFs of anything you find. Everything about my visit was an object lesson how a government agency can make a public resource available to its citizens in an efficient, useful, and even aesthetically-pleasing fashion. I am generally not all that sentimental about older forms of technology, but there was something about sitting in that near-silent room—flipping through the scanned pages of someone’s diary looking for clues, with only the quiet whirring of the microfilm in the background—that made me feel immediately at home. It was, for me at least, pretty close to my platonic ideal of how to spend a birthday.
Thomas Jefferson was fascinated with information management schemes. (His famous remix of the Bible, inspired by Joseph Priestley, hero of my book The Invention of Air, was a variation on the practice of commonplacing.) Living as he did many decades before the creation of the Dewey Decimal System, Jefferson had constructed his own elaborate organizational system for his Monticello collection, loosely based on Francis Bacon’s tripartite schema of Memory, Reason, and Imagination. Jefferson translated those categories into History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts, creating forty-four subcategories which he called “chapters.” (He described the chapters as “sometimes analytical, sometimes chronological, & sometimes a combination of both.”) He developed a card-based system for tracking all the volumes in his library, with handwritten notes on each of them—not all that different from the slip-box technique that Luhmann would develop two centuries later. If Ben Franklin was the prototype of a long tradition of American self-help gurus, always looking for new techniques to be more productive or efficient, Jefferson was more of a tools-for-thought kind of guy. “One of the most systematic of men," his biographer Dumas Malone wrote, "he was in character as a cataloguer.”
I had made the pilgrimage down to the Library of Congress several times before as part of my research for earlier books, but every time I arrive there I am struck—moved really—by the way the Jefferson building is situated on Capitol Hill. The entire space at that eastern end of the Mall is dominated by three imposing structures: Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Library. It’s as though the seat of the federal government has been divided into its own tripartite schema: Power, Justice, and Information. There’s something fitting about it, even as the news cycle is now dominated by the activity in the other two buildings, a testimony to how much the Founders, for all of their flaws, believed that the free flow of information was central to a functioning democracy. Standing there in front of the main Library building, I was reminded of the quote from Jefferson that I had used as the epigraph of The Invention of Air, an argument for the value of information commons that is as relevant today as it was back in the eighteenth century:
That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.