How I Met Betty Boop at the Butler Library: A personal essay by Laurel Davis Huber

How I Met Betty Boop at the Butler Library
or
Lessons of a Neophyte Researcher

By Laurel Davis Huber

I suppose I am what you would call excitable. I can’t seem to help it. On the day I took the ferry in to New York City for my first-ever foray into research for a book I hoped to write, I was, well, just like a little kid. When a woman took the seat next to me, I felt a powerful urge to revert to the small child who cannot not tell you exactly what is most important in the world. (I am three. Look! I have a red dump truck. Hey, look at me! I’m going to Columbia University today to do research! Watch me!)

Butler Library at Columbia is huge and beautiful—a classical, limestone structure. I stood outside a while, admiring the span of columns and the surprising green lawn beyond the entrance. Then I walked in.

Just inside was a large desk with signs telling all who entered to show their Columbia ID. After I explained why I was there I was directed to a side office off to the left. I handed over my driver’s license and filled out a long form. In return, I got an official nametag, which pleased me immensely.

You need to go upstairs, they said.

And so I went upstairs.

I opened the glass door of  “Special Collections” with a reverence born of long anticipation and all sorts of visions of the mysterious dark warrens that surely must comprise the rooms set aside for rare books and special collections in great libraries. But I was immediately disappointed. The space was ordinary. The walls, undecorated by art of any sort, were a dull pink, and mottled by primer. Glass cases that should have held rare books and manuscripts were empty. Obviously, a renovation was in progress.

There was just one large room, broken into three areas: a space in front with one computer and two microfiche machines on one side and a long librarians’ counter on the other; a back area with a long wall containing card catalogue files; and, to the right, a sort of floating space, completely glass-walled. Inside this transparent cube of a room were two long tables that could have seated eight people on a side, but at the moment there were only three souls. At the end of the glass room, a young woman sat behind a desk piled high with folders and cardboard bins.

I walked to the librarians’ counter.

“Yes?” said a young librarian, looking at me with the depth of interest that arises in someone trying to choose which brand of paper towel to buy.

“Oh, hi. I’m here to look up a few people, but I’d also like to look through the Gumby collection if I could.”

“Have you done research here before?”

“No,” I said, and thus started a complicated process that included having to read a list of rules (no pens, no loose paper, you must place extraneous items in the lockers provided for a fee, no cell phones, no picture taking…), having my driver’s license copied again, filling out another form requesting academic affiliations that I left embarrassingly blank, and, finally, being told that really the only things I could keep were my spiral notebook (no loose paper!), a pencil, and a laptop if I had one.  Which I did not. Everything else would have to go into a locker.

The librarian explained that the Gumby material I would see would not be the actual papers as the collection was all on microfiche. Okay, I said—maybe I could start with the other names I wanted to research. For that, she said, I’d do best by looking through the card catalogues. This idea surprised me. I’d seen them when I’d first arrived, but, honestly, I’d thought that card catalogues had gone the way of subway tokens.

The librarian walked with me over to the card files as I chattered, explaining that we probably wouldn’t find the first person on my list because he was so obscure. As we stood together in front of a wall of oak drawers with brass pulls, I realized that the librarian was really quite striking looking. She had fantastically shiny, black-as-jet hair. Chin-length, styled in precise waves close to her head, like a 1920’s marcelle. Her eyes were large and black. She wore a black sweater with a huge enameled white daisy pinned jauntily just below her collarbone and a green pencil skirt. She looked exactly like a real-life, very pretty, Betty Boop.

But she acted every inch the librarian. I showed her the first name on my list, Robert Schlick, and she calmly drew out a small wooden drawer. There, glowing like a beacon, was the name “Robert Schlick” typed on an index card. I couldn’t believe it.

“Now,” Betty quietly explained, “if you find something you want I’ll show you what you need to do to get it from our collections.”

I couldn’t contain myself. I was like a dog who’s just heard, Want to go for a walk?

“That!” I said excitedly, pointing at the card. “I want that! How do I get it?”

She gave me a most curious look. And waited a beat. Slowly, in even tones, she said, “First, you must calm down.”

Lesson Number One for the Neophyte Researcher: Never act all excited when you find stuff in special collections.

 

The card catalogue produced evidence that, somewhere hidden in Butler, there were all sorts of handwritten letters from or to the people on my list, including one from Agnes O’Neill to Hart Crane. This was, I thought, just about the most fun I’d ever had, and I hadn’t even seen the papers yet.

With the most blasé demeanor I could muster, I walked back over to Betty, who patiently showed me how to fill in my request cards. She said it would take about ten or so minutes for one of the pages to retrieve the material. (Pages! Young men in tights! Plumed hats!) In the meantime, she told me I could have a seat in the reading room. That would be the floating glass cube.

I don’t like to “have a seat” under any conditions as I am far too restless, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do, and I didn’t want to disobey my new friend Betty. I opened the heavy glass door and took the first spot at the very end of the table by the door. I had only what I was allowed: my spiral notebook and a pencil. What would I do for ten minutes?

I studied the others in the room. Two men and one woman. Stereotypically academic, I decided. The woman had longish gray hair, no makeup, and loose black clothing. One of the men was built like Ichabod Crane and had a mass of unruly, curly hair. He wore a very natty-looking brown suit. The other man, who sat opposite me, had on khakis and a polo shirt and wore round, tortoise-shell glasses. And now I was part of this crowd: a middle-aged bridge-and-tunnel woman from New Jersey, with dark blond hair in a stubby ponytail. I was wearing jeans, flat-heeled boots, and a mustard-yellow cardigan. I practiced looking professorial.

All the “real” researchers had a stack of folders in front of them, and all were furiously typing on their laptops. Every once in a while one would get up and get a thin yellow folder—like a manila folder cut in half length-wise—and carefully put a paper inside, then set it to the side of his or her workspace. There was a whole pile of these yellow folders on the shelf behind the opposite table. I wondered if I should get a few, just in case.

Time did not go fast. I opened up my notebook and looked pensively at a blank page. (Lesson Number Two: Never, ever do this sort of research without bringing your computer.) I wrote in my notebook, as painfully slowly as possible, nonsensical sentences. Then I drew a sketch of the large foam contraption that sat on the worktable. It looked like the top of a lectern, or altar, and had two weighted leather ribbons down the middle. I guessed that it must be where you put rare and fragile books when you examined them.

Fifteen excruciating minutes went by, and I was having a lot of trouble just sitting there, but I was afraid to go ask Betty if there was a problem and risk appearing impatient. Also, I figured that it was inevitable that the minute I left the room would be the exact moment my material would arrive. I’d seen some folders magically delivered to the woman in black, so I knew how the system worked: the promised page (as it turned out, he was a young man in jeans, collared shirt, and red sweater vest) quietly emerged from a side door rolling a trolley full of boxes; the girl at the desk then consulted the slips of paper in front of her, searched through the folders on the trolley, and then motioned to the lucky recipient to come pick up her treasure. I kept waiting, but I never got the signal.

Finally, after twenty-five minutes I couldn’t help but think my requests had somehow been lost. Was it deliberate? Was I so obviously out of place, so clearly a non-academic, that I was being taught Lesson Number Three (If you don’t have credentials, don’t even think about touching our stuff)?

I went out to see Betty.

Very humbly I asked if there could be a problem since it had been twenty-five minutes.

Betty gave me her curious look again.

Sometimes it takes longer, she said.

Okay, thanks, I said. I slunk back into the glass holding tank.

At last I got the nod. Feeling like a nervous flower girl who’s just gotten her cue, I walked the endless walk from my perch by the door all the way up to the desk.

 

My very first folder contained the letter from Agnes O’Neill to Hart Crane. It was dated 1925, and was hand-written on stationery headed, “Merryall, New Preston, Connecticut.” The letter was just a few sentences long. Agnes was sorry that Hart couldn’t make it for the weekend but maybe it was just as well as there’d been some other people there—perhaps he could talk things over with Gene another time. Such an unremarkable little letter, really. Still, it seemed surreal. Lying in front of me was a letter Eugene O’Neill’s wife had written to Hart Crane over eighty years ago. I stared at it a long time, reluctant to put it back in its folder.

I copied many of the letters into my spiral notebook. (See Lesson Number Two.) When I was done with my work in the reading room, I moved to the microfiche machine. Betty had three reels of film ready for me. We were getting to be pals.

About halfway through the first reel I saw, floating by in large handwriting, “For my much esteem’d friend Gumby from Robert Schlick 4/11/30.” I was so excited that I turned the dial up instead of down and the filmstrip whizzed by in dizzying speed. Slowly I backed up, hoping that Betty hadn’t caught me being impulsive again. (See Lesson Number One)

 

The afternoon flew by. I had seen all I could see. I’d been to Connecticut and London and Wales and to various New York addresses. I’d read letters and poems and pored over images from the past on microfilm. It was time to go.

I went to the librarians’ desk and thanked Betty for all her help.

I was a researcher now.

Piece of cake.


Laurel Davis Huber grew up in Rhode Island and Oklahoma. She has worked as communications director at a botanical garden, high school English teacher, and college administrator. Her debut novel, The Velveteen Daughter (based on the true story of Margery Williams Bianco and her daughter, a world-famous child prodigy artist), will be published in July by She Writes Press. Agnes and Eugene O’Neill are supporting characters in the book.

3 comments

  1. It does take courage for an initiate to enter a bastion of academic privilege. I liked how Laurel Huber contrasted her girlish enthusiasm with the cool efficiency of those around her in the inner sanctum of literary scholarship. Also, it amused me that she was able to make herself feel more comfortable by identifying the high-brow librarian as the lovable cartoon character, Betty Boop. I wonder how the librarian would have reacted if she had known how the inexperienced researcher perceived her?

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    • Thanks for your comments, Paul. We never do know how people perceive us, do we? I’m sure the librarian would have been surprised by my thoughts – but again, what did she really think of me? I’ll never know.

      Like

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