Will Travel For Words: Going Behind the Books by Karen A. Chase
Shelf Pleasure contributor Karen A. Chase shares her journeys near and far in the pursuit of stories in her regular feature, Will Travel for Words. This month she takes us behind the scenes of one of her favorite places to write, The Library of Virginia.
The Library of Virginia is a place I often go to write. My state library is near my house. It’s quiet, I’m inspired by quotes from famous Virginian’s stenciled on the shelves, and they often have old reference books I can’t find anywhere else.
Recently, at the invitation of a fellow historical fiction writer, A.B. (Anne Bryan) Westrick, we joined a behind-the-scenes tour of the library’s archives. There’s very little that will make two history nerds giddy beyond being allowed to sneak into the archives of a library. And we were well rewarded on this day.
On the top floor of the building, high above where I usually write, we walked among a collection of historical Virginia Newspapers reaching back over 150 years. The library has acquired some newspapers, while some are donated as people inherit attics full of forgotten materials. Getting to see the newspapers was interesting, but applicable to this writer was their project, Virginia Chronicle, which has enabled them to digitize them. I now know I have free access to hundreds of thousands of newspapers online, anytime, from anywhere.
From there we were shown a smattering of original documents, photos and other manuscripts the library has catalogued. As an author, I could easily write about someone receiving a telegram about the death of a loved one in WWII. I think, however, it has far more impact after seeing such a telegram. The one we were shown from 1945 had been folded and refolded, torn and worn, and clearly kept among family documents. As a tribute? Or an inability to let go? Regardless, seeing such items first hand, can greatly impact how we write about the moment they document.
Our last stop was in the basement, far below that floor where I often type. Here, is the cleaning room. Maps, photos, and other documents sometimes require a removal of all that attic dust or accumulated filth in order to be better preserved. Thankfully my state library has such a department where one woman–who has both an art history and a chemistry degree–works to ensure items are cleaned to archival standards. This enables the items to be better viewed, digitized and kept for writers who come to the library. Even long after my writing days are over.
In a matter of two hours, the archives tour provided me with something I hadn’t seen before. It give me a sense of what went on behind the books on the shelves around me, but it also gave me perspective. To know that I can touch history. See it. Read it. And more importantly, access it.
Behind those shelves of books, is a team of intelligent people caring for our history by collecting, cleaning and recording books, maps, documents, manuscripts, letters, photographs, and so much more. And consequently the historians in my state library make it far easier for me to travel for words without going very far.
Karen A. Chase is a regular contributor to Shelf Pleasure, sharing journeys near and far in the pursuit of stories and novels in her monthly feature, Will Travel for Words. She is the author of Bonjour 40: A Paris Travel Log, winner of seven Independent Book Publishing Awards for travel and design. She is currently working on an historical novel set during the American Revolution. Find Karen on Facebook, or on Twitter.
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