New York

Keepers of the Secrets

by

I was told that the most interesting man in the world works in the archives division of the New York Public Library, and so I went there, one morning this summer, to meet him. My guide, who said it took her a year to learn how to get around the Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street, led us to an elevator off Astor Hall, up past the McGraw Rotunda, through a little door at the back of the Rose Main Reading Room. Our destination was Room 328.

A sign above the door called it the “Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Rare Books and Manuscripts.” Inside, there were a handful of quiet researchers stooped at large wooden desks, and in the corner, presiding over a cart of acid-free Hollinger document boxes, was the archivist Thomas Lannon.

Lannon is younger than you’d expect, just thirty-nine years old. Clean shaven, with slacks, well-kept shoes, and a blue knit tie over a light button-down shirt, he looks less like an assistant director for manuscripts/the acting Charles J. Liebman curator of manuscripts than a high-level congressional aide. He talks with a kind of earnest intensity, and fast, with constant revisions, so that he sounds almost like a scientist who can’t quite put his discovery into words.

Having grown up in Exeter, New Hampshire, Lannon had always wanted to get to New York, the fount of his heroes (Sonic Youth, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg). But he makes a point of the undistinguished academic career that led him to the library a decade ago. He went to Bard (“a middling to decent liberal arts school”), where he first met his now-wife, also an archivist, in an early Greek philosophy class. Later, he studied library and information science at Pratt, before getting a master’s in liberal studies at The Graduate Center at CUNY.

Before he started pulling out boxes, I was asked to trade my pen for a pencil, for fear that I might get ink on the ledger from the late 1700s that came out of the first one. Lannon held it with bare hands (because gloves, I learned later, would dull his sense of how fragile a page is). The ledger belonged to Samuel Bayard, a wealthy New York landowner whose ancestors had married into the Stuyvesants, and whose estate, when he died, may have fueled the feud between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. It seemed full of accounting minutiae, Lannon said, but if you knew what you were looking for it told a story.

That was the way it was with archives. He flipped to page 19, which assessed the value of a plot of land that Bayard owned, a so-called “negro burial ground.” “Everyone talks about how in archives you find things,” Lannon said. “But this shows the moment when something disappeared.” This entry, he explained, was the last surviving reference to the burial ground, which was on land at New York City’s 1750s border near Duane and Reade streets. Shut down in the 1790s, the burial ground disappeared from popular memory, remaining known to history only through documents like this.

Lannon had a story like this for every box he showed me. In one, among administrative debris, there was an investigation by the New York Academy of Medicine into marijuana, signed in ink by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. It was the first American study to declare that the drug wasn’t addictive or dangerous. In another, there were records from the sign-making company that built what it called “spectaculars” around the city, like a Camel Cigarettes billboard in Times Square that actually blew smoke, and the New Year’s Eve ball.

In still another box, a diary from the 1840s of a sixteen-year-old girl. The July 7 entry tells of encountering Mr. Levi, a Jewish man, on her walk around the neighborhood. “This is an account of the peopling of New York, where you have a well-to-do daughter going for a walk, exploring the city, meeting someone from another background, and sort of marveling over the way they live,” Lannon said. “Mr. Levi who lived in that house wrote no books, left no records, we have no idea who he is except here he is in this diary.”

The New York Public Library’s Schwarzman building is most famous for the ornate and cavernous Rose Reading Room, now reopened after two years of restoration. The stacks under the library can hold 4 million books (the actual number in storage is lower, though no one is quite sure), which are delivered to the reading room by 950 feet of miniature rail running at 75 feet per minute.

But the real gem of the library, in Lannon’s view, is the stuff that you can find only in boxes like the ones now strewn across the table. “You can get a book anywhere,” he said. “An archive exists in one location.” The room we’re standing in is the only place that you can read, say, the week’s worth of journal entries in which New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal contemplates publishing the Pentagon Papers. It’s the only place where you can read the collected papers of Robert Moses, or a letter T.S. Eliot wrote about Ulysses to James Joyce’s Paris publisher, Sylvia Beach.

These collections aren’t digitized. The only way to find out what’s inside them is to ask for a particular box — often with just a vague notion of what will be in it — and to hold the old papers in your hands. “I don’t know how one could be interested in libraries and not archives,” Lannon told me. They tell you “the stories behind things,” he said, “the unpublished, the hard to find, the true story.” This, I began to see, is why someone might have been inclined to call Lannon the most interesting man in the world: it’s because he knows so many of these stories himself, including stories that no one else knows, because they are only told here.

That is the paradox of being an archivist. The reason an archivist should know something, Lannon said, is to help others to know it. But it’s not really the archivist’s place to impose his knowledge on anyone else. Indeed, if the field could be said to have a creed, it’s that archivists aren’t there to tell you what’s important. Historically momentous documents are to be left in folders next to the trivial and the mundane — because who’s to say what’s actually mundane or not?

***

The “backend” of the New York public library system is a three-story building in Long Island City, a few blocks from the Court Square subway stop, that looks like an elementary school. The building says “BookOps” on the facade, and sits next to a Tower TLC rental facility for livery drivers. It houses “technical services” for the NYPL and Brooklyn Public Library; every new item destined for either library first comes through here to get cleaned up, bar-coded, and entered into the library database. Rare books that are falling apart, or old maps, are meticulously restored in industrial-grade laboratories on the third floor.

This is the home of the archival processing team, the organization that turns newly acquired archival collections — like Lou Reed’s collected papers and recordings, or jazz musician Sonny Rollins’s, both of which were acquired this year — into a resource that’s usable by researchers.

It used to be that papers were donated to libraries. Now, as often, major archives are sold, sometimes for millions of dollars. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas Austin, which is well-funded and ambitious, is said to have particularly driven up the price for the most sought-after collections, like David Foster Wallace’s papers.

When a collection arrives in Long Island City, the first step is to “stabilize” it, as though it were a patient just arrived at the ER. One recently acquired collection — the archives of the New York Review of Books — had been sitting at the Navy Yard for twenty years. It was covered in oily dirt. The archivists who brought it here had to wear Tyvek suits and facemasks while unpacking it. There’s a room on the third floor called the “disaster recovery room,” where, say, a mold infestation might be taken care of.

It is at this stage, too, that the not strictly archival material usually gets found in the filing cabinets. Lea Osborne, the head of the archival processing unit at the NYPL, told me that she’s found dentures before, homemade roller skates, a bottle of ginseng, and, so far in the Sonny Rollins archive, more than $8,000 in cash. (That gets returned to the donor.)

The real work, though, in processing a collection, is intellectual. The goal is to make the files you’ve received findable by a researcher; and of course to make them findable, you have to know what’s in them. In the old days, this was slow work. Archivists would read most of the documents in a folder, taking note of them, rearranging the documents if they seemed disorganized. Their finding aids, the all-important database record that tells a researcher what’s in a given collection were deeply hierarchical, with detail all the way down to individual pieces of paper in individual folders. You wouldn’t just get the “Ezra Pound letters,” you’d get something akin to “Ezra Pound letters, 1904–06, re Joyce.”

The explosion of paper made this approach unsustainable. “When the National Archives in Washington was created in 1934, it inherited an awesome backlog of about one million metres of federal records, with a growth rate of more than sixty thousand metres annually,” the archival theorist Terry Cook wrote in a paper. “By 1943, under the expansion of the state to cope with the Great Depression and World War II, that growth rate had reached six hundred thousand metres annually.”

By the 2000s, something like a third of all collections at libraries were unprocessed, and backlogs were just getting bigger. One staff member at a public university responded to a survey by writing, “Virtually all the collections processed in the past three years have been done in response to angry donors and family members.”

A 2005 paper titled “More Product, Less Process” was a wake-up call to the field. “Truly, much of what passes for arrangement in processing work is really just overzealous housekeeping, writ large. Our professional fastidiousness, our reluctance to be perceived as sloppy or uncaring by users and others has encouraged a widespread fixation on tasks that do not need to be performed,” the authors wrote. Pointing out that as much as 80 percent of the archivists’ time was spent “refoldering,” the paper offered shortcuts that, it claimed, would make more collections available without sacrificing much in the way of intellectual accessibility.

“MPLP,” as the paper’s doctrine became known, went on to be the rallying cry of the field, even as it seemed to transform the archivist from an assiduous historian into a corner-cutting technocrat, rushing to get linear feet of record out the door (“linear feet” is an obsession in the world of archives; one standard box of folders is just over one linear foot). Indeed, most archivists got their start because they liked poring over archives. The ethos of MPLP was to read as little of a collection as you possibly could, while still ensuring that you made it usable for research.

In a large room, in the Long Island City building, I spoke with a young archivist who was processing the New York Review of Books collection. Like most of the archivists wandering around, she was wearing a denim apron, both because it protected her clothes from dirt and because it had big, kangaroo-like pockets. Some MPLP processing guidelines explicitly discouraged removing the original paper clips from collections, since it takes time, unless it’s absolutely necessary; her desk had a pile of them, which she’d arranged into a heart. I asked her if she was reading any of the papers in front of her.

“I like poetry a lot,” she said — so she would, on occasion, indulge herself. But in general, she said, “we try not to.” Her work seemed to be less about getting to know a collection, the way a historian might, and more about simply knowing what was in it — to be, temporarily, a kind of human index to it, before writing it all down as a finding aid. On her desktop computer, she had a spreadsheet with 4,379 rows.

Much as MPLP has sped up the work of archivists, more significant may have been its embrace of a philosophy about what matters in an archive. One term of art that archivists use is “received order,” meaning the sequence that a collection had when it was acquired. That order may be entirely haphazard, or it may reflect planning at the source. Perhaps the arrangement of folders that someone left, chaotic as it might be, is significant. Leaving it as you found it isn’t just less work for the processing archivist — it’s also a truer record of history.

It also forces the researcher to pore over boxes of chaos where the most remarkable discoveries come from.

***

It took David Grann nearly five years to write his latest bestselling nonfiction book, Killers of the Flower Moon, because of how much time he spent in archives. The book is about the Osage, a Native American tribe whose Oklahoma land, in the early 1900s, was discovered to be sitting on an oil reserve. The tribe members became per capita the wealthiest people in the world. Then they started getting murdered.

Grann had known about the killings, but not their extent, until he came across a fabric-covered logbook in the National Archives in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a simple document. It was a list of the names of Osage “guardians” — the white people assigned, on a deeply racist premise, to manage the Osage fortunes — and next to them, the name of the Osage they were the guardian for. The only other thing written in the book was, underneath the names of certain of the Osage, the word dead. One guardian was assigned to five Osages, and all five of their names were followed by that word. “That defies any natural death rate,” Grann said. “I thought that was strange, and I began to look at other individuals. Sometimes there would be a guardian who had a dozen Osage whose wealth they had been in charge of, they’d been guardians of, and there might have been 50 percent of them who had the word ‘dead’ next to them. And on and on it went.”

“That document,” he said, “which really just looked like a bureaucratic ledger — it was very forensic, had no kind of emotion to it — really contained the hints of a systematic murder campaign.” He said that that was the nature of archival work: a document that looked like nothing could turn out to be telling a powerful story — but only if you had a sense of what you were looking at. “I was not looking for that book, I just came across it. And unless you were versed in what was going on, it might’ve just seemed innocuous. And yet this very innocuous document really showed the banality of evil.”

In the process of writing the book, Grann said, through all the archival work, there’s “a kind of relationship with these documents that you begin to develop as you become more familiar with them, and as you hold them, and as you look at them.” He likened it to the relationship you develop as you speak to someone, face to face, in an interview; it’s more than you could ever get over email. “I thought the handwriting in that ledger was revealing,” he said. “It was just a simple word. And I just kept thinking, ‘Who was that bureaucrat who kept writing this word dead?’ And I just would look at the handwriting, and that’s all they wrote, and in that word it contained volumes of hidden history, suffering, death, poisonings — souls.”

Other researchers say much the same thing. “It’s the most time-warped thing,” Rachel Syme, a journalist who’s worked extensively with archives before, told me. “It’s a real person — the stationery they commissioned, the paper they put into their typewriter.” She described a personal archive as “a deep well of empathy.”

Diving into this well is one of the positive side effects of a less-than-detailed finding aid. “The best the finding aids give you is ‘Letters, 1921–1937’,” Syme said. “‘I guess I have to look at every single letter?’ Yeah, you do.” The need to pore through boxes forces you to connect with them. Syme described this as one of the few kinds of formal research left. You can’t google — you have to think about what you want. You have to talk to an archivist, and find the right box, and go through that box.

“What warms my heart is when a person comes in and discovers what’s actually here,” Lannon, the archivist, said to me on a call a few weeks after I’d visited the library. “It’s inductive versus deductive reasoning. When a person comes in and just finds out what’s actually in front of them — that’s really happy. When they come in and look for something, and then say they can’t find it, that’s frustrating.”

Lannon said that Google had changed the way people sought information. “They only want information based on the information they think they want,” he said. As a rule, he said, archivists at the library should give you the box you’ve asked for — but also suggest another box. There are fewer opportunities, now, to stumble into a world you don’t already know. “It’s important to look outside of your own existence.”

On my way out of Room 328, Lannon showed me a small bookcase. It contained some of the work that had recently been born from the archives. There was a book about Mayor La Guardia, a book about recycling; a history of a publishing company, an account of a World’s Fair, an assemblage of diaries, a history of elite families in New York, a book about Joyce. Perhaps the next Killers of the Flower Moon was in there, or the next The Power Broker.

Lannon talked about how books like these weren’t the work of one person. “Knowledge is a sort of social production,” he said—made by scholars who meet each other, if not literally in rooms like this one, then across time through the work that’s left there. It struck me that there would be lots more shelves filled this way, each book, in its turn, the fruit of old boxes, well cared for, waiting to be found.

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