Travelogue | October 2009 | Nicholas Basbanes

Reports From the Field

The last couple of weeks have been pretty busy for me, starting off with a keynote address in Columbus, Ohio before the Ohio Preservation Council on the occasion of the group's 25th anniversary--the theme for the event was irresistibly titled "A Celebration of Paper--followed in quick succession by presentations in Worcester, Mass., to benefit the Worcester Public Library and the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

There were very nice audiences in attendance at each of the events, all of them reaffirming for me my abiding conviction that book people are the greatest. I was pleased to learn in Worcester that the main branch last year had more than a million people use their services, quite a testament in a city whose population is somewhere in the neighborhood of 180,000 people. If there is any municipal service anywhere that gives its residents more bang for their taxpayer dollars than the library, I'd like to know what it is. Doesn't matter if you're a senior citizen, an elementary school student, an immigrant looking for help, or a just casual reader interested in reading the new Dee Brown blockbuster, the library is there, doing it's job--and with no lobbyists, either, pleading its case to the politicians who vote on budgets. I was one of three speakers--Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, and historian Russell McClintock were the others--and we helped raise enough money to keep the library open on Sundays through the rest of the fall. Pretty cool.

The story was much the same in New York. The Mid-Manhattan branch is situated directly across Fifth Avenue from the main research library--the magnificent building featuring Patience and Fortitude, the wonderful lions carved of pink Tennessee marble, at the front door--and is six floors of activity, with public programs mounted pretty much every week-night, all of them free and open to everyone. Hats off to Cynthia Chaldekas, senior librarian there, and coordinator of all these events. A class act all around.

I would be remiss, finally, if I did not mention the great time I had last Sunday participating in the day-long program of activities organized by Hand Papermaking magazine, which included an introduction to the remarkable collection of papers from all eras and every continent--some 40,000 specimens all told--gathered over the years by Sidney Berger, a noted bibliophile and writer of books about books, who is also director of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Sid's wife, Michele Cloonan, is dean of the Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Services, one of the top programs of its kind in the country, and an enthusiastic collector of paper and type specimens in her own right.

Also on the agenda was a visit to the International Paper Museum in Brookline, Mass., established by Elaine Koretsky, one of the outstanding scholars in papermaking history, justly celebrated as the Dard Hunter of her generation. I wrote a piece for Fine Books & Collections magazine two years ago about a trip I took to China with Elaine and a group of paper pilgrims, our goal to see paper as it has been made for more than two thousand years in the place where the skill was invented; it's on my website in the travelogue section, with a bunch of photos I shot; check it out.