Assistant Curator of Manuscripts and Assistant Reference Library Tracey Kry comments on her impressions of AAS as a newly-arrived employee.
A couple of months ago now, we had a post about creating an AAS Glossary that would talk about terms and collections unique to AAS (http://pastispresent.org/category/aas-glossary/ ). The first post was about people’s confusion with the term Antiquarian, but there is so much more to discuss!
Having been employed by AAS for only three weeks now, I myself am more surprised than anyone at how quickly I’ve grown tired of aquarium jokes. Every time I explain my new position to friends and family, it’s always the same. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good pun, but often the explanation of AAS comes to an immediate halt when fish are mentioned. Not only is there an incredible wealth of information, history and practices unique to AAS, there are innumerable pun opportunities if we just get beyond the fish. So as a new employee of AAS, looking at its practices and oddities with fresh eyes, I’d like to give an inside look at AAS as an institution, and provide all of our readers with a glimpse behind the stack door and into a world with plenty more terms, labels, and practices that need a little explanation.
Let’s start with the stacks this week. AAS is a closed-stacks library, which simply means our books are held behind closed doors so readers can’t just browse the shelves – all material needs to be paged by an AAS staff member. There are numerous ways for staff to enter the stacks (I’m still finding new ways in and out) but the one most used by those paging for readers is the wooden door behind the Readers’ Services desk. The door is surprisingly quiet and unassuming considering the wealth of information and knowledge just beyond it, but it is just as it should be. AAS is about sharing that knowledge, not guarding it. In fact, you may even catch a glimpse of what’s behind the door simply by looking through the glass on the bottom.
Why there is glass on the bottom of the door behind the desk was the first among many questions I had. No, it’s not a doggy door, nor is it a poor, unmatched patch on a damaged door. The glass on the bottom of the door is simply, and quite ingeniously, a way to see if all is clear on the other side before barreling through with a full cart of newspapers. Think of the restaurant standby of yelling “corner!” as one dashes around a kitchen with arms full of dishes. The glass method, fortunately, is much better suited to the environment of the reading room. It works surprisingly well, and I’ve already learned to recognize people by their shoes.
A small digression regarding glass – glass has shown up again on my radar while navigating the stacks, an area which is two times as large as I would have expected. There are areas in the stacks with glass floors. Very visually interesting, and just a tad creepy if you catch someone walking above you out of the corner of your eye.
Now in the stacks, let’s talk about classification. Nothing against Dewey or LC, but given the nature AAS’s holdings, traditional classification systems would never do the collections justice. While most classification systems attempt to cover all areas of knowledge, the collection at AAS is far too deep and detailed for traditional systems to work. The collection has so much material on, for example, specific local histories, that the level of detail within this particular topic needs additional breakdowns. Additionally, whereas traditional classification systems need only worry about subject, we also need to worry about size, shape, and composition, and the coinciding care and storage. How else are you going to differentiate Miscellaneous Pamphlets (call number: Misc Pams), an oversized engraving (call number: Engrfff) and a bound manuscript volume that is under 12 inches (call number: MSS Octavo)? This combination of the depth of the topical information, and material distinction makes for a unique, somewhat complicated, but entirely practical classification system.
So the call number tells you what you’re looking for, but next is the matter of actually finding it! There are 25 miles of shelving to navigate through, but maps, which are posted quite frequently throughout the stacks, are extremely helpful. All of the floors are similar in their layout, shaped like a cross. As long as you remember what collections are on which floor, and which part of that floor, you should be all set. And most importantly, there are red arrows on the floor pointing to the exits!
And as a final note regarding the stacks and classification, all of this could be even more difficult (could it really get more difficult!?) if AAS did not refocus it collection policy to only include paper. Up until the early 20th century AAS also collected objects, and I can only imagine how much more confusing that classification system would be (chime in museum people!). So my burning question is, what kind of interesting objects does AAS still have stored in alcoves and the server room? As I find out, so will you!