ONE SUMMER NIGHT long ago at a writer’s conference, the novelist David Bradley and a few of his students were sitting around talking when he announced that he’d been researching a screenplay on the life of Otis Redding. This was before the CD reissues and boxed sets, so he was surprised, when he started singing the ballad “Dreams to Remember,” to find me harmonizing along with him.
“How do you know that song?” he asked.
“Oh,” I said, “I have all his records.”
I was much younger at the time, and definitely too young to come from the Stax/Volt era. I’d spent my teenage years in garage bands and flipping through the stacks of used record stores, much as I’d spent my twenties reading the spines of used books until my brain ached. That wax was hard to come by.
“I see,” David Bradley said. “An archivist.”
No, I wanted to say, I’m up-to-date, absolutely happening, breaking news to all-o-yous. But the proof was overwhelming. After following the avant-garde for a while, I’d dropped back into the past. My favorite book was Anna Karenina, my favorite composer Bach. I was turning into the worst kind of snotty connoisseur, even in pop; I preferred the early Clash, disdaining anything past Give ’em Enough Rope.
After that night, I made a concentrated effort to read more contemporary work, struggling with the label David had given me. But then, weeks later, I’d find myself burrowing through the complete tales of Chekhov or all of Faulkner. I couldn’t see paying twenty bucks for a new, not-terribly-good novel when I could get a nice Modern Library copy of To the Lighthouse for six-fifty.
I relented, relaxed into my true nature. Iam an archivist, and I’m glad to be one–necessarily, as it turns out. I was lucky enough to move on from being one of David Bradley’s students to being one of his colleagues. As a novelist I’m interested in personal history–how we come to be the people we are–and how that personal history relates to the larger social movements through events we think of as history.
I’ve always haunted libraries, taking out the maximum stack, annoying reference librarians with impossible questions. Growing up, my favorite places were the Bookmobile, then the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Boston University’s Mugar Library, the Cornell grad school library, and then–getting serious, editing a collection of pieces by John Gardner–the rare book room at the University of Rochester library.
Since I’ve been writing novels, I’ve relied much more on imagination than on research, and when I need a detail, usually I’ll just make it up. This year, for the first time, I tried my hand at non-fiction, a book recounting the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire. Making things up wouldn’t cut it. I would have to become a detective, track down every bit of information I could find. The one non-fiction book about the fire mentioned that the official records on the fire were at the Connecticut State Library in downtown Hartford, so I hopped in my car and went.
The State Library shares a classic, pillared building across from the Capitol with the State Supreme Court. Like many official undertakings, it’s oversized, monumental in the grand style. The wide granite stairs out front rise like bleachers. Its marble lobby echoes like a soundstage, a place to recreate the assassination of Huey Long. The History and Genealogy Department, where the fire records are, is downstairs, reached by a twisted staircase, the banister rubbed smooth by generations of hands.
The first things you see, there at the bottom of the stairs, are two copiers, constantly in use unless they’re busted (which will happen). Patrons wrestle dusty tomes or fit puzzles of yellowed news clippings onto the glass tops, then cover their eyes against the blinding flash. Guests need to sign in, using a pen on a beaded chain to enter their names and place of residence in a ledger the size of an unabridged dictionary. To your left is the vertical file–cabinets stuffed with folders full of itemized clippings–to your right a pair of computers tied into all the library’s files. Ahead is the information desk, where harried yet unflappable librarians help you understand what’s available and aim you in the right direction.
If you want to know anything about anything that happened in Connecticut, this is the place to find it. The walls are solid with local histories and family genealogies. At the microfilm machines, people are poring over long defunct newspapers (the library has them all, as well as hardy perennials like the Courant), making photocopies to take home. The deep cabinets in the back have maps going back to colonial times. Yearly city directories list residents for every dwelling, a bell symbol beside the address denoting phone service.
And beyond all this are the open stacks, thousands and thousands of books and periodicals, broadsides and pamphlets, along with the complete records of the State Supreme Court. The aisles are tiny, the shelves daunting, but the librarians upstairs seem to know where everything is. They lead you through the dusty-smelling maze and back out into open space again. Is there anything else you’re looking for?
Downstairs, in the closed stacks, that’s where the real treasure is: curling police records fastened with rusty staples, detectives’ flip-open notebooks full of old phone numbers, tattered diaries, aerial photos. Boxes and boxes of good stuff, catalogued in black binders at the information desk. You need to get a special I.D. from the security office before you can make a request, but it’s easy, it takes less than an hour to process. Twice a day at the appointed times you can put in your order and soon Kevin will roll out the boxes on a thundering metal cart.
The special collection area is roped off, only open for six hours a day. You have to leave your bag in a locker. Show your I.D. and sign in, sign one box out at a time. No pens, no notebooks. If you want to bring in a computer you need special permission. Most folks just use the pencils and sheets of paper provided at the desk.
The box is like a gift; you don’t know exactly what’s going to be inside. But that’s what you’re here to find out. You need to use white cotton gloves to handle the photographs. Try to be gentle with everything; it’s all one of a kind, priceless.
Come often enough and you’ll see regulars, people working on dissertations or chasing down their family trees–fellow archivists. Some will become interested in your project and a chance conversation will turn into a new lead. The staff has practice at both protecting your privacy and connecting you with others mining the same vein. And how could you stay away, knowing how much is here? You could easily become addicted to the search.
There are only 50 state capitals, and each has its special places, perks usually reserved for that city’s residents. The people of Connecticut are lucky; from anywhere in the state, Hartford is no more than 90 minutes away. I sometimes close my readings by telling people to use their public library. For the serious archivist, the State Library is an even greater resource. Take advantage of it.