My 15 minutes

A nice article about PPL’s special collections in today’s Providence Journal (original link followed by text):

Bob Kerr: The third floor is where the treasure is
01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, June 28, 2009

http://www.projo.com/news/bobkerr/kerr_column_28_06-28-09_TNERTTD_v13.2bca026.html

Sometimes, it takes an out-of-towner to find the treasures the locals pass by. It takes fresh eyes to see past the familiar, everyday blur. So Piper Smith, a social worker from New York, found the Providence Public Library. Then she found a room on the third floor where a person could get lost for days, maybe weeks. “I love libraries,” she told me earlier this week by phone from New York. “And we went up and this man was very kind and we asked if we could look around. He was so welcoming. He showed us all over.”

Smith was in Providence to visit her twin sons, Raber and Taylor Umphenour, and Raber’s fiancie, Jenni Katajamaki. And when Piper and Raber and Jenni met Phil Weimerskirch on the third floor of the library they brought together more than just an incredible mix of surname syllables. They brought together a shared fascination with timeless works on paper.

In Special Collections at the public library, you can pick up a first edition of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorritt in serialized format complete with advertisements. There is the history of printing collection and the Irish literature and folklore collection. There are more than 10,000 items on the Civil War and the history of slavery. There are shelves and shelves of whaling logs that tell in very personal and immediate ways of the often brutal life aboard whaling ships on their years-long voyages. In the children’s collection, there is a German book with a xylophone inside.

“Row upon row of mind-bending rarity,” says Richard Ring of the things that surround him. Ring is director of Special Collections. Weimerskirch is director emeritus and works part-time and is due to be laid off as part of the brutal cuts at the library. Together, they represent one of those wonderful corners of learning that allows us to feel and smell and settle in with the work of centuries.

Ring handed me a small volume titled Traits De Jeu de Dames A La Polonois. It’s about the international game of checkers. There are drawings. It was once owned by Marie Antoinette. She held it, and I held it. I’m going back. I want to sit down with a whaling log. But if not for Piper Smith I would have been just another of those people passing by without a clue as to the rich possibilities close by.

Actually, it was her daughter-in-law-to-be that pointed her toward the library. Katajamaki is a graduate in architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design. She studies buildings. She considers the public library at Washington and Empire streets one of the most beautiful and well preserved buildings in the city. And she considers Special Collections and all its enriching books special and fantastic. “There was a medieval manuscript,” she said. “There are only three in the world. Usually, things like that are under glass. You can’t touch them.”

Smith contacted The Journal after her visit to the library. She thinks people should be more aware of what’s really there. She finds it sad that more people don’t use it. She also finds it sad that the library staff, including Phil Weimerskirch, is being so drastically reduced. “He was so kind and generous with his time,” she said. While she was there, she looked at a first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.

By the nature of its priceless inventory, Special Collections is not a place for school field trips. It’s not a drop-in part of the library, although Ring says if he’s there and you ask, he’ll be happy to show you around. But due to all the staff cuts, he has been given additional duties at the library. An appointment is a good idea. If you go, you will meet a man passionate about the treasure over which he presides. He speaks of the “materiality of books.”

It is a small world he works in, says Ring. But it is a very interesting world and one where the gentleman’s handshake still means something. There was a Dutchman who had a book that Ring says was worth two times his annual salary at least. And the Dutchman told him to take the book and check it out “It’s based on trust,” he said.

So, too, is the use of the material in Special Collections. People are trusted to treat the books with respect and clean hands. Ring is never far away. This is his domain. He does everything — from writing grants to putting books on the shelves. He came to the public library from the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University in November 2007. “I knew we had good stuff here, really excellent stuff.”

It is that, all right. This part of the library is a place to stop and slide out a book and think about where it’s been as well as what it teaches. There is a feeling of reverence. As we moved among the stacks, Ring took a book from a shelf. It’s the memo book of the chief surgeon in the Confederate hospital at Richmond. It tells of the war in a way historians cannot. And it is just one small piece of this quiet, thoughtful place that so enriches its city.

I want to thank Piper Smith for telling me that it’s there.

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