Sorry to miss you here yesterday, but I was at the library. And not just the library, but the library — the Library of Congress. I spent most of yesterday hunkered down in the Periodicals Reading Room of the Madison Building doing some research on my current work in progress — which is still in a way too scattered state for me to announce anything yet, sorry. At the moment, I’m just poking.
I love the Madison Building. With its stone pillared facade and drab interiors, it doesn’t have the old world charm or glamour of the Jefferson Building, but it makes up in substance what it lacks it style. You can wander the halls and the reading rooms freely — provided you have your library card, of course — and lots of books and reference materials are readily available without having to submit a formal request that can sometimes take a while to process before the book hits your desk.
The Periodicals Reading Room is an efficient, businesslike space. One end is crammed with row after row of shelves lined with hardcover indexes to more major metropolitan newspapers than you can imagine, as well as guides to public documents, Presidential letters and papers, and the Congressional Record. Tucked up just behind these shelves are tables for reading and research, and some angled desks where you can spread out older documents or manuscripts.
Dividing the room up the middle are several rows of cubicles with computers. Signs at each cubicle warn readers that these computers are Strictly for Browsing the Library’s Electronic Catalog, but most readers were quietly checking e-mail or watching YouTube videos — but with headphones on, I noticed, so as not to disturb those around them. (One patron was even playing what appeared to be a online version of Donkey Kong.) There’s also a small area for making photocopies — and you’ll need to purchase one of the library’s copy cards to do so.
On the other end of the room are tidy columns of filing cabinets full of microfiche versions of major newspapers like The Washington Post, New York Times, the London Times and Wall Street Journal, some dating as far back as 200 years. In fact, the files for the New York Times date all the way back to September 18, 1851, starting with volume 1, number 1, when it was the four-page New-York Daily Times. This is where I spent most of my day, shuttling armfuls of microfiche boxes from the cabinets back to my microfiche reader back in the far corner.
A microfiche reader is one of those really interesting old-school pieces of equipment that still works just as well today as it did a generation ago: simply load the film onto an overhead spool, flick on the light switch, and the image is projected onto the white surface below. Need to advance a page? Turn the crank on the side, and the image spins past. When you’re done, handcrank with all your might to reload the film on the spool. Efficient? Not really. But it works.
The only real problem I have with microfiche is that, even as I whiz the pages past, my eyes tend to try to follow each page. So I spend hours with my eyes quickly flicking back and forth, which makes me feel somewhat seasick by the end of the day. Suffice it to say, I staggered out of the library at 4:00 looking like I’d just stepped off the Pequod.