- On Being a Romanticist in the Library
Lately I dream of libraries.
I dreamed I was in my office, propagating ivy clippings for students to cultivate. Each student would use a webcam to record the plants' growth, and together we would develop a database of timelapse videos showing the "same" plant in different environments. In my dream, I wondered: is this a digital project?
(Surely my dream reimagined Natalie Jeremijenko's 1998–1999 "One Tree" project, in which she planted 1,000 clones of a single tree, as a non-textual representation of Charles Darwin's description of watching the tendrils of a climbing plant feel out boreholes in a wooden post: "The same tendril would frequently withdraw from one hole and insert its point into a second hole. I have also seen a tendril keep its point, in one case for 20 hrs. and in another for 36 hrs., in a minute hole, and then withdraw it."1 As Gillian Beer notes, this passage does in language the work now done by timelapse photography.2)
I dreamed I was showing a stack of rare materials in archival sleeves. [End Page 187] As I turned to the next object, I saw it was a copy of Micrographia bound in Robert Hooke's skin, from Thomas Hookham's collection, and I realized I had stolen it, and paused.
A woman with a face like water, purpled with rot (though she lived), hid behind my plants, waiting to retrieve the book.
I relate this dream because it reveals how my brain has struggled to assemble the fragments of book history that I have amassed lately, to graft them onto existing structures of knowledge, to articulate how "librarianship" might be both a career and a structuring principle to enable new kinds of inquiry. In this dream, I considered the written content of a text that might be re-presented in a nontextual format; then turned to a textual object that could never be adequately represented in another form; considered a provenance inspired by the aural similarity between Hooke and Hookham, but also marking the connection between publishing, bookselling, and the introduction of the circulating library in the late-eighteenth century; and expressed the ethical anxiety that library collections erase historic thefts.
And the woman in the ivy? A liminal character, neither dead nor alive, waiting in ivy, itself representative of liminality: neither one nor many, marking the abstraction of textual content to physical objects that might be abstracted again into new forms or editions.
I relate this dream because it expresses how it feels to be a librarian: how librarianship, especially of the digital variety, means radically recombining sources and dissolving indissoluble boundaries. I wish I had a conclusion that tied all these thoughts together neatly. But perhaps the point is the absence of neatness, the overabundance of connections that cannot be contained but instead propagate and change, like the ivy but also like the Micrographia, in which the illustrations stretch beyond the expanse of the book, confusing scale while suggesting that the topic itself cannot be cut down to size. [End Page 188]
Leila Walker is an Emerging Technologies and Digital Scholarship Librarian at Queens College, CUNY, and currently working on a digital scholarly edition of Elizabeth Kent's Flora Domestica.
1. Charles Darwin, On The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants (London: John Murray, 1875), 95–96.
2. Gillian Beer, "Plants, Analogy, and Perfection: Loose and Strict Analogies," in Marking Time: Romanticism and Evolution, ed. Joel Faflak (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 29–44.