It’s now been over two years since I poked my nose into Manuscript Archivist Jim Bantin’s office, eager and anxious about doing a job I knew very little about, and asked him what we would be working on. After a crash course in the history of the Carus family and their creation of the Open Court Publishing Company, I found myself in a basement with unmarked cardboard boxes stacked floor to ceiling, two rows deep. Sitting down on a stool and regarding the monumental task in front of me, the processing of almost three hundred boxes when I had never processed anything before, I began to identify with the unnamed maiden in the story Rumpelstiltskin, finding herself faced with bales of straw and wondering how to spin it into gold . Two years later, I can’t say I’ve accomplished any such miracle, and will not admit or deny to having any help from nameless little men who crawl out of doors in the walls, but the boxes have labels, there a clear content list, with separate series, in ARCHON, and I know more about The Open Court and the Carus family than most people would consider healthy.
I can say that I’ve learned to swim after landing in the deep end, that I’ve been acquitted following my trial by fire, and that I have fallen in love with the simple, sometimes mesmerizing activity of archival processing. Every day I would take my little book cart down to the basement and bring up as many boxes as I could fit, and then jump in. Opening box after box I would discover order when I thought there was none, assign order when I found it, and finally created order when it chaos was determined. Things started to become clear, and during this time I discovered I was pregnant with my now 18 month old son, and spent much of my second trimester, happily, wiping coal (or was it zinc?) dust off of boxes and boxes of documents and magazines. I would come home at night black up to my elbows, but with a definite feeling of accomplishment. Anyone who has done this kind of work knows that eventually it becomes compulsive, that the materials become individual pieces in giant puzzle, and to leave them scattered makes one almost frustratingly distracted. They day before I gave birth to my son I was frantically trying to create not only a standard order to the collection as a whole, but a simple starting place for myself once I came back from maternity leave, and predictably, I arrived back six weeks later, sleep deprived and having little recollection as to what I thought I was doing and what any of these boxes were.
Once I gathered myself back together, I decided to forgo the daily ritual of carting boxes up from Morris basement, and moved myself, permanently, underground with the collection. Although the lack of light and company may seem a bit extreme for a seven and a half hour work day, I began to think of myself as a reluctant superhero, using my futuristic key fob to go to my lair of solitude, underground, doing my mission outside of society’s notice. This, and other like thoughts, must, of course, be attributed to the aforementioned lack of stimulus and light.
Of course, I am now bordering on the dramatic, or even melodramatic. I was not so completely alone. Jim Bantin was ever present. He had the ability to talk me down when panicked as to whether a diagram was an illustration or part of a manuscript; to give me like reassurance that adding boxes to already processed and cataloged material was inevitable and unavoidable, so not to try so hard to make everything fit; and would visit me in my dark, massive “office” and help me find my way. For this and so much else, I will be eternally grateful. I also had the assistance of Amanda Stafford Blue, a graduate student in History who has the neatest handwriting I have ever seen, and it’s still a pleasure to reorder her carefully inscribed folders, though they make mine look kindergarten-project-esque by comparison, as well as student worker Orion Poulin, who has recently been tirelessly arranging a large number of huge, dusty, hundred-year-old ledgers which, Jim assures us, might actually be used by someone at some point.
One week from today I will leave my fortress for the last time, fob myself up to the world of the living, and leave Special Collections and all of my now neat, clearly labeled, and dust-free boxes behind. Part of the irony of this kind of work is how silent and invisible it truly is, and that the better a job is done, the less apparent it is. My wish, then, for Open Court, is that it lives and breathes with the researcher, and that I am not present, not noticed, and never celebrated because my work has been that seamless. The self congratulations, therefore, will live here, on this library blog, acting very much like my six grade compulsion to scrawl “I was here” on any clean, flat surface. I was here, I finished what I came to do, and now will say goodbye.
[Note from Pam Hackbart-Dean: We will miss you and appreciate all your hard work on Open Court]