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Brewster’s Ark
  • July 06, 2013 : 07:07
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Fagan and I arrive at a long row of boxes against the wall. California’s books are waiting to be checked against the archive database for duplicates, given a bar code and digitized. I pull out a sample volume bound in cheap plastic. It looks as though it has never been opened: Measurement of Zooplankton Biomass by Carbon Analysis for Application in Sound Scattering Models. Master’s Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, 1974.

I enjoy a good read, but I don’t feel like tucking into this particular item. A few boxes down I notice antiquated large-format books bound in leather.

“It’s too bad the state didn’t have room for these,” Fagan says, carefully opening one of the volumes. He gestures for me to come nearer. “Look, it’s the London Times.”

There they are, real newspapers, beautifully bound and tariff-stamped with the names of the reading rooms they were originally meant for. (“Smoking Room” is my favorite.) They date back to 1833. For years these newspapers would have told the readers of California the news from London just as it appeared to the Londoners themselves. The pages are thick and crisp, lovely to behold. They have ads for London-specific businesses. I want to take one of the volumes to a leather chair, pour myself a single malt and browse. The events of March 4, 1833 are chronicled in black ink, still dark and legible, printed in the original Times Roman typeface:

“Charge of Child Murder: Jane, the wife of Joseph Hague, age 20, indicted for casting her child into a certain privy.…”

“Hunting Appointments: His Majesty’s staghounds, Monday, at Ascot Heath.…”

“A review of the Rossini opera Matilde di Shabran at the King’s Theatre: As a production, this opera far outdoes in extravagance and absurdity anything we have seen. Fine music ought not to be bestowed on such subjects; it is unfitting to the living and the dead.…”

“I think we’re building a special scanner for these books,” Fagan says somewhat doubtfully. His name is called over the loudspeaker. “Hang on a sec. Another shipment’s just come in.”

“More books?”

“More books,” he says. He starts off toward the loading dock.

“Why is Brewster doing it?”

Fagan looks at me in surprise. “He wants to create the next Library of Alexandria.”

“But this isn’t exactly a reading room. Can’t he donate these books after scanning them? He wouldn’t have to pay for storage.”

“You’ll have to ask him that yourself,” he says and takes off at a sprint. The forklift operator is running too. They look like a couple of excited kids.

I linger at the edge of the book islands that dot the warehouse floor. A metal ladder rises to a storage platform where more books stand on pallets, ready to be turned into time capsules. Literary treasure sits inside those boxes—Shakespeare plays and forgotten classics, official maps and obscure drawings, Bibles and pulp, science and fiction, dog-eared poems and wine-stained prose. “Every word was once a poem,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. Maybe this is where all words are destined to retire, the city of Richmond. Whole libraries are being buried like Egyptian mummies.

As I wait for Fagan I hear a strange warble, like an Arabic ululation. It’s the circular exhaust fans, whirring in odd intervals, creating an otherworldly atonal fugue. I wonder if any crows are up there, dropping bullets. Fagan told me he doesn’t know why the birds do this or where they find the casings. He told me a scanning engineer became so entranced by the archive that he stayed here day and night, by himself, for months. Along the metal rafters, computerized climate monitors measure my body’s impact on the humidity. Suddenly I am uneasy being in the warehouse alone. I worry the forklift operator might mistake me for a book.

I wander around, looking for Fagan. I walk past an open box of women’s shoes. Another box holds rotary telephones. (As people learn about Kahle’s penchant for collecting, his repository has become something of a dumping ground for dead people’s attics.) The shipping containers tower in the center of the facility—30 of them, with a further 28 on order—certified by the Port of Oakland, primed, painted gray, treated with sealants to protect against everything from fire to dry rot. I notice one has its door open. I cross the loading dock and step inside.

It’s cold inside a shipping container. All sensations—colors, smells, sounds—are collapsed into a dark void. A shipping container feels as though it might preserve something, anything at all, until the end of time. I make out endless rows of cardboard boxes. Near the front is a box overflowing with reels. The shipping label reads Penn State Film Archive. Titles include Across the Silence Barrier and The Year of the Wildebeest.

Someone taps me on the shoulder, and I wheel. It’s only Fagan. He looks tired from his journey across the warehouse floor, and as he glances down at the films at our feet, he’s still panting. “We’re supposed to watch these, one of these days,” he says. “Put up a projector. See what it is we’ve got.”

I take a cab over the Bay Bridge. I want to meet Brewster Kahle, the man behind the books. It’s a sunny afternoon, and I’m grateful to be moving through open air. As my driver hurtles into San Francisco, down into this glittering city of pioneers and radicals and offbeat billionaires, I think of all those books back in their shipping containers. What in the world is Kahle doing?

Public libraries first appeared in Victorian England. A component of British social policies aimed at “mutual benefit,” libraries grew out of the belief that people without education needed the means to learn. For a small fee, circulating libraries lent out music scores, songbooks, folios of caricatures, even instruments. Not everyone thought positively of expanding public literacy. Thomas Goulding’s polemical pamphlet “An Essay Against Too Much Reading” argued, “’Tis not drinking and whoring, as your old sots attribute it to, that invigorates the spirits, and causes quick flights; they run to the libraries, which confounds all again.” Libraries have always encountered various forms of hostility—mostly due to the tax burden on the public—but for many people they remain places of refuge to sit down, without charge, and read.

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read more: entertainment, News, books, issue july 2013


  • Yeghia
    Great project to work on.