Friday, February 20, 2009

The Anti Google

I had my very first paid freelance job yesterday. It didn't pay well, but it paid. I registered with a site that lists small freelance opportunities, and saw a posting seeking someone to find some information in the Library of Congress. I have been to the Library a few times, and although I'd never done research there, I was pretty sure I could do it. Plus, I'm just nerdy enough that a day at the Library of Congress is my idea of some fun. So I emailed the poster, who promptly responded with his requirements. He needed some Civil War era newspaper clippings and Army pay data, and $30 an hour was cheap compared to a trip from his home in South Dakota. I was hired.

Fortunately, I took a few minutes to research my research, because if I'd just shown up unprepared, it would have been a very long day. It turns out that although the public is permitted to use the Library, you need to register first and have a Reader Card before you're allowed into any of the reading rooms. I registered first, and received an ID which has the worst picture that has ever been taken of me (worse even than my first Maryland driver's license, which was awful. I don't photograph well), and I got started.

The Newspaper and Periodical Room was my first stop, and they had the newspaper archive I was looking for online via a private subscription maintained by the Library. I searched for about 45 minutes and found the article. My next stop was the Rare Book Room, where I hoped to find copies of the American Almanac and Repository of Useful Information.

The Rare Book Room is in the Jefferson Building, which is the Library's main building. The Jefferson Building is across the street from the Madison Building, where I'd registered as a reader. You can't wear a coat or carry a bag in the Library, so I had checked my coat and bag in the Madison Building. You get a clear plastic bag so you can carry your wallet, notebooks, etc., and so that security can see if you're trying to smuggle out the Gutenberg Bible or Thomas Jefferson's letters or something. I took my plastic bag and found the underground walkway connecting the buildings. It's very cool. Most of the Library is very beautiful, filled with extraordinary paintings, marble, polished wood, moldings, ceilings and walls decorated with handpainted motifs trimmed with gold leaf, but not so the underground walkway. It's the guts of the place, with painted cinderblock walls and linoleum floors and hundreds of rooms for storage, maintenance supplies, carpentry, electrical, etc. There's also a coffee shop, which is open to the public. The walkway takes quite a few turns, so I was very grateful for the signs directing me to the Jefferson Building. If there hadn't been signs, I'd still be wandering that corridor.

The Jefferson Building is where most visitors to the Library come to see exhibitions and hear lectures. It's pretty spectacular (and has one of the nicest public bathrooms I've ever seen). I bought a few postcards in the gift shop, walked around to get myself oriented, and found the Rare Books Room. They're quite serious. First of all, you learn as soon as you ask for directions to Rare Books that you'll also have to give up your plastic bag before you enter. I found a coat check one floor down, and asked what I could take with me. Wallet, pen and notebook--my phone and folder had to stay with the coat check. As it turned out, the wallet, pen, and notebook were also forbidden. I was told to carry my reader card in my pocket, and to store the rest of my things in a locker just around the corner from Rare Books...they give you a key. My belongings were scattered in three locations in two different buildings, and I didn't even have a pen and paper. Pens aren't allowed, so the librarian lent me a pencil and some loose paper, and gave me a form on which I was to list the call numbers and titles of the books I needed. They had two of the books, the other two are in offsite storage at Fort Meade, so I'll return to retrieve them next week.

I really had no idea how much information is NOT available on the Internet. There are thousands of old books, journals, atlases, almanacs, newspapers, and magazines which have never been converted to electronic form. Some of these survive only in one or two copies, and if you need them, you have to get them in person. It's like the information cobblestone street, or the information two-lane blacktop if you're lucky enough to find whatever you're looking for on microfilm. You can drive from Maryland to California now in three days, but before the Interstate system was built, it took weeks. Going to the Library is like driving long distance before the Interstate. It took longer, but I still got there.

Anyway, all of my contact with the person who needed the research done was via email, and I really had no idea if he would even pay me. I sent him two emails summing up what I'd found, told him that I'd mail him hard copies, and then sent an invoice via PayPal. This morning, I found a very nice email thanking me for my work, and a notice from PayPal showing that the invoice had been paid less than an hour after I sent it. I'm going to send him his articles tomorrow, along with a postcard. That was a fun afternoon.


Matty Boy said...

Even with all the fuss and trouble, or maybe because of the fuss and trouble, this sounds like a fun gig to me as well.

dguzman said...

Awesome! Great gig! I guess all us nerds can unite in this opinion.

susan said...

Your post reminded me of a book I read several years ago by Nicholson Baker called Double Fold. It's about the deliberate destruction of hard copy archives nationally. It's not a happy subject but one that may interest you. I don't know about you but Amazon calling its electronic reader 'Kindle' always creeped me out.

The Lady Who Doesn't Lunch: said...

How cool AND you got paid. That would be a dream come true for a library geek like me. I love old bound magazines and I used to be a whiz with the microfiche. I'm so inspired I might just go research something for the hell of it now.

Sauntering Soul said...

This sounds awesome and interesting! Of course this might be because my job is so incredibly uninteresting.

CDP said...

Matty--it was! A tour guide pointed me out as a "researcher" to a tour group, and everyone looked suitably impressed.

Dguzman--see, I knew that all my people would agree on this.

Susan--I had no idea; I'll try to read that. And now that you mention it, "Kindle" is rather an ominous name for an electronic reading device.

Lady--I love doing stuff like that, too.

SS--I'm sure it's not THAT boring! And if it is, at least your life is interesting!

enc said...

That was a cool adventure. Thanks for sharing it with us.

pistols at dawn said...

Pretend you're Nicolas Cage in That Movie That Was A Lot Like The Da Vinci Code, and get in a fist fight over some documents!

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