After we'd left all of our bags and coats in a locked room, they led us into a windowless classroom inside the library where a large screen featured the catalogue search page. I was there with a group of students for a session on archival research; I thought that perhaps we'd see a presentation about how to find things.
Instead, they brought out an original Nuremberg Chronicle. Invited us to touch the cloth pages, see where the bookworms had eaten through, touch the brass bosses that kept the book off the table and away from damp surfaces. Without gloves on.
I'd been to university archives before, to look through old papers (for the history section of my dissertation), but never had I touched something this old with my bare hands. It was astonishing to imagine the history, not just of the work itself, but of the people who had worked on this particular book (which took three years to make), who had held this copy of the book, who had read the book that I now touched. People for whom the beginning of world history was Creation story, and for whom the end was the Apocalypse. Something about the act of touch dissolved the boundaries between today and yesterday and hundreds of years ago, as if they'd been false all along.
There were other things. A letter from Isaac Newton to Samuel Pepys (this in a thin plastic sleeve). Navajo playing cards from the 19th century. First full drafts of novels, with corrections and marginalia.
Marveling at correspondences between authors like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garciz Marquez, I felt a sense of loss, too: what rich exchanges will be irretrievable, now that those conversations are digitized? Yes, we can save those things (because as we all know, the internet's memory is long, indeed), but who will?
I used to write long letters to friends, sending them by post. Now, I dash off email, connecting and disconnecting. I think about the email I've written to my author-friends, knowing that though I can't speak for them, sometimes the things we say to each other are the beginning and endings and interstices of what I write. The conversations tell a more complete story about writing. How will the archives trace those conversations, if at all?
What about the multiple drafts of novels, or other documents, whose revisions can now no longer be detected? How do we tell those writing stories?
Do you still write anything longhand? What's the oldest document you've touched?