Once upon a time, we had a scribal job at the Book Fair, a job where a volunteer sat and wrote things down. It was one of the few low-energy jobs we had going, so we didn’t advertise it much.
The Newberry, as I have sometimes mentioned, has dibs on the books we get through the back door, and when something comes in that they’d like to add to the collection—a first edition Jane Austen, Peggy Guggenheim’s copy of Samuel Beckett’s first book—we set it aside. That’s only the beginning, see. We can’t just send it right up to have numbers put on the spine and a bookplate pasted down to the front pastedown and the angry miniaturized wolverine that will expand to full size and devour anyone who steals the book—oh, sorry, I wasn’t supposed to mention that. Security likes to keep its secrets. Anyway, we can’t send it upstairs right away because there’s an important step to go through first.
The Newberry already has lots of books, you understand. That’s what makes it the Newberry. And, contrary to popular belief, no curator knows every single volume on the shelves (except maybe John). So the book must be checked against our holdings. If a copy already sits on the shelf upstairs, we get ours back. During the last century, this involved taking the books up to the library catalog for checking. This was a lot of work. One of the great rules of library card catalogs is that the card you want to see is always in a drawer near the floor. You either reach down, pull it out, and set it on the table provided, if you’re a library expert, or you kneel or squat next to the drawer to riffle through it down there, if you’re like the other ninety-nine percent of the population.
So early on, we streamlined the process by having a volunteer write down the title, author, and publication data for each book the selectors selected. This list could then be passed along to a looker-upper who could carry the list from drawer to drawer of the catalog instead of pushing a fully-loaded book truck. This saved wear and tear on books and volunteers.
It also, since we had the writer-downer working into a handsome leatherbound volume (because somebody donated a blank one once) provided us with a record of what we’d sent upstairs. Whenever somebody at the library wanted to know what we’d done for the joint lately, we could haul out this book and say, “Well, we just sent you a whole set of Washington Irving with a page of his original manuscript in it.”
With the new computerized age, and the online card catalog, the writer-downer became obsolete. Books could now be looked up from a seated position. Gone now are theleatherbound volumes of handwritten lists, gone the genteel volunteer occupation of sitting in a corner and transcribing all this publication data. And, alas, gone are the lists in black and white of what we’ve sent up to the collection. No gain without some pain, of course.
Speaking of pain, we said goodbye last week to the last of our writer-downers and the first of our computer looker-uppers. For years, Dr. Edward S. Peterson would come in and take a seat at the desk in the Receiving Room and write down title after title after title. He was a congenial companion and found the work congenial, and it was with some trepidation that I introduced him to our first laptop, and venture to explain to a volunteer about forty years older than I was how to check the books online.
“You need to move this little arrow…” I said.
He glanced up and inquired, gently, “Do you mean the cursor?” I hate being shown that I’m the last person left behind in the twentieth century.
Until his health got in the way, he continued to take up his usual seat and work on a contraption of metal and plastic instead of paper and leather. He got through a great number of books and though now he is gone, he leaves behind half a dozen volumes of titles, authors, and publication data. This is not just a record of what the Book Fair sent upstairs, either, but a valuable historical document.
If a generation used to mobile devices ever wants to look back and see if all the jokes about a doctor’s handwriting were true…well, as I said, no gain without some pain.