So I made it to the library yesterday morning, and completely failed to keep track of time. The end result? I made my train to Brandeis thanks primarily to a bus kind enough to be five minutes late and a history of running track. Yeah I ran late, but you don’t understand. They had “the smell.”
I smelled the book before I saw it. I was reading about about the settling of the land that was to become Ten Hills Farm, a plantation on the Mystic River in neighboring Medford when the reference librarian appeared behind me, bearing a book from the local history archives. I examined the cover as the reference librarian lay it on the table in front of me. A History of Slavery in Massachusetts by George H. Moore. Published 1866.
“Unfortunately you can’t copy this or take it from the library,” she sternly informed me. I nodded, aware that historical materials are generally not allowed to leave the immediate area of the archives, but content not to interrupt her shpiel. “Some people do take pictures of pages with a digital camera though.” Naturally I had opted not to take it along. I made a mental note to check their weekend hours on my way out.
I set aside CS Manegold’s Ten Hills Farm after jotting down some notes on Fitz-John Winthrop, an occupant of the sprawling plantation a few bus rides from my apartment and a slave trader himself. He was also the grandson of John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay. Sliding Moore’s notes in front of me I ran my finger along the brittle binding, feeling the old thread go fragiley taut under my nail. I wonder how many years it’s been since someone opened this, I wondered. I hope it’s been a while.
I opened the book and shut my eyes, allowing the smell to wash over me. It was a combination of dust, must and other accumulations of history and the decay of time. It was an aroma of rare, original knowledge penned by individuals that much closer to your answers through a quirk of temporal proximity. It was probably also mildew which might explain this cough.
Smiling at this sensory reminder of my love of research I glanced at the page I’d opened to. 25. My eyes traced the first paragraph. “. . . persons born of Negro bond women are themselves . . . born in servitude.” I could feel my smile drop. Huh. For some reason reading about the legal particulars of humans owning other humans kind of dampens my enthusiasm. I thought of Charlotte Sussman’s remarks in Rereading Aphra Behn about how the titular hero of Oroonoko is perfectly content in his life as a slave until he realizes that his unborn child will be born in servitude. But more on that issue (pun intended) in a future post.
The librarian dropped four more books on the table in front of me. “You can check these out downstairs,” she informed me. I thanked her, then noticed the clock behind her. 11h05, I noted. You need to be out of here in 10 minutes. I returned to the book. Or you would if you were leaving from home instead of ten minutes out of your way, a different internal voice added. Which means you need to leave . . .
What followed was the fastest throw-everything-into-my-bag-run-downstairs-and-double-back-to-the-front-desk-so-as-not-to-set-off-the-alarm in the history of my time in libraries. Naturally an interlude courtesy of the world’s slowest moving librarian and internet connection took place as well. The coda was marked by me, sweaty as a marathoner running through a car wash but grinning like an idiot at my bus related luck, triumphantly boarding the train.
Besides. The smell.