“What a feast for this age of restless curiosity”


The Rare Books and Music reading room in the British Library

I’ve been in London for a few days now and already I know it will be hard to leave this city. With a satisfyingly warm mug of tea in hand (Tetley’s, diluted to the color of wet sand by milk and made palatable by one—no, two—cubes of sugar that disappear in the warmth of the liquid: the distinguishing details of a perfect cuppa) and the full moon drifting higher and higher through the fog that has settled like a cosy blanket atop the flats across the way, I feel a little like life has sped forward and I’ve arrived in the future I’ve been dreaming of. I cannot begin to express my good fortune and gratitude for this opportunity.

For someone who has braved the disorienting stacks of Cambridge’s University Library and who has cleared out entire call numbers from Magill’s shelves, I should not be intimidated by any library but the British Library (or BL), where I began my day today, is not a place to be trifled with. Nestled a mere block from the PA announcements, disoriented travellers, and commotion of King’s Cross Station, the modernist, red-brick building reminds me a bit of a formidable factory, churning out books like smoke against London’s surprisingly blue sky. During the Olympics, the library opens its doors at ten. Arriving early on my first day, I was surprised by the number of people milling about café tables or patiently queuing like good Brits, waiting for the library to throw open her arms and invite us inside. The BL holds regular exhibitions showcasing items in their collection resulting in a mottled mixture of tourists and academics waiting to be ushered inside. The tourists stand out by virtue of their ages, their dress, and their astonishing penchant for logos and insignia to mark the progress (and sponsorship) of their journey. While the tourists mill about in groups, taking in the exhibit, the atmosphere, and the extent of the building, solitary academics brush past them, clutching at clear plastic bags as they ascend the stairs to the upper levels. Because of my age and wide-eyed awe, I pass for a tourist. Only by transferring my laptop, charger, and pencil (no pens or highlighters) to a clear plastic bag do I really arrive as a researcher.


Flashing my reader’s pass to get into the Rare Books and Music reading room on the first/second floor, I feel like I’ve become a member of a super secret club. In reality, all it takes is proof of address and signature to gain access to this room but I can’t help grinning like a green idiot anyway. If I ever doubted my unfailing nerdiness here was all the evidence I needed. I am a complete and enthusiastic dork. This reading room is spacious, filled with wide desks and large, surprisingly plush chairs. About half the desks are filled by men and women pouring over piles of books stacked neatly next to their notepads or laptops. By the looks of it, I am the youngest person in the room (though this could easily not be true) as more than half my fellow researchers appear to be older, more established academics in addition to the smattering of surprisingly well dressed grad students. Paging through the bibliography of one of my secondary sources the other night, I noticed that many of the author’s primary sources were housed in the BL. My author and the author of every other book I’ve read in college with critical reverence could be in this reading room, working alongside me, unannounced. I am intimidated. And that’s even before I realize that despite all the preparatory reading I did of the BL’s website, I still don’t know how to get the books I needed.


The women who man one of the counters that spans the walls of the room look at me with mixed expressions of pity and frustration as I try to explain my confusion. Do I retrieve my book here? Yes, I requested the book online prior to my visit. No, I forgot to specify the specific volume number and year. Whoops. Can I file another request here or do I have to go somewhere else? They do not suffer fools gladly. And, frankly, nor should they. These men and women are the guardians to something fragile, rare, and important—our history: the keys to who we are and who we will become—and I can understand their defensiveness. When I ask the young guy helping me on my second trip to the desk where I should order my book he looks bemused and asks the older woman working the counter next to him. His noticeable inexperience is a breath of fresh air and I begin to feel like less of an outsider. Maybe this strange feeling of cluelessness and embarrassment is just part of the process of going to a research library for the first time. Maybe all those professors were once bumbling idiots like me. Book finally in my careful clutches, I feel hopeful. On my second visit, I walk with the same purpose as my superiors, quickly collect my books and begin. Maybe, just maybe, I belong here.



I’ve chosen to begin my primary source research with the first series of Johnson’s Analytical Review (hereafter AR), a literary journal first published in 1788. The AR explains its purpose in the introduction, stating that “the true idea of a Literary Journal is to give the history of the republic of letters.” Despite the reading I’ve done and classes I’ve taken, I was not prepared to be plunged into the world of Joseph Johnson’s London. As an atheist who cares very little about the history of religion, reading the AR’s review of a book of sermons is disorienting; I don’t know what to look for, what is significant, or how to make meaning out of what I’m reading. But I trust my instincts and jot down notes on phrases, statements, and themes that strike me. I always find the beginning of this process hard; it’s like a treasure hunt where you don’t know what you’re supposed to find (or if there will be anything to find). That said, the entire process is exciting. In the introduction to The Great Cat Massacre, historian Robert Darnton argues that historians should embrace what he describes as “culture shock.” The past should surprise and unsettle us and we should not run from those moments of disorientation, assuming that those who lived before us thought and acted like we do today.


As much as I live for the moment when a historical document unsettles me, I struggle with Darnton’s warnings. This afternoon, I went out in search of 72 St. Paul’s Churchyard, the site where Johnson once lived, published his books, and hosted his friends. The building is long gone like nearly all of central London, perhaps erased by the Blitz or by gentle evolution and change. It’s hard to tell where his building once stood, but I suspect it’s been replaced with the gustatory disaster that is Yo! Sushi. As I stood outside the restaurant watching patrons select colored plastic sushi bowls from the rotating belt, I couldn’t shake the eerie sensation that this was the spot where Johnson lived, worked, loved, celebrated, mourned, and thought. Walking the same streets he walked, Joseph Johnson was beginning to come alive to me (I suspect that once I read his letters, I will get a far better picture of the man). Obviously, I will never meet him and most of his life will remain opaque and inaccessible to me. In many ways, this is the bane of a historian’s existence—we can never have all the data—but it’s also a problem that plagues all of us in our day to day. I will only ever be inside my own head which makes it hard to ever really know other people. Of course we get by, filling in substantial gaps based on our own experience and our understanding of what is universally human (which is based on our experience), but how far can we take that comparison? If a historian’s job fundamentally is to make the past come alive by telling stories (while advancing arguments, of course), then how do I make Johnson and his friends human without obscuring historical distance? Historians are supposed to be objective, letting primary sources speak to them rather than superimposing their own ideas on the evidence of the past. You come to a primary source with open eyes, seeing what strikes your unprepared eye and then you do the research, returning over and over again to the primary sources to see what you notice as you become better informed and at every stage you let the evidence speak to you. Of all the facets of writing history, I struggle with this one the most. Ultimately, I want to write “useful” history, history that tells us something about ourselves and helps us find the tools to be better citizens. As much as I want to write a story about the importance of community and political participation in fostering a specific type of happiness and meaningfulness, you can’t bias the evidence. At the end of the day, all you can do is find a set of interesting primary sources and listen to the stories they tell you, letting them transport you to the distant shores of the past.


I haven’t even begun to sate my curiosity.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>