I have come to absolutely love old sections of libraries. It’s like a different sort of library, one where time sort of doesn’t exist. Everything is old and new at the same time, and it’s all so startlingly quiet. With the exception of non-internet enabled laptops (in most cases), there is no other electronic noise, and in some places you wouldn’t blink if a Lord of the Rings cosplay walked by, carefully carrying a book. If you do blink, you’re new. I’ve found the people who frequent these areas tend to embrace rather…unique styles. For whatever reason, they are drawn to research something that you can’t find many modern books about, or they need original sources, so they gather where manuscripts are old and vellum abounds. These libraries–usually located in the basements of normal libraries–are like baby versions of the Department of Manuscripts in the National Library of Ireland.
The Department of Manuscripts isn’t what most people think of when they think of the National Library. The main library has a nice big rotunda and all sorts of pretty dressings to make it look nice. The Department of Manuscripts is almost hidden on Kildare Street, along with a lot of other brick fronted buildings. It’s right near the Royal College of Physicians, which has columns and other fun stuff at the front. But the Department of Manuscripts is, itself, not particularly descript. The interior is older, but well kept, with a few non-manuscript historical artifacts wandering about. There are two parts, one being a sort of showcase museum for old manuscripts, the other being the research area.
The research area–or reading room–is not just a place that you pop up to. This is something where people have to plan ahead so they know exactly what sorts of things they will be looking at when they get there, and when they get there, spend their entire day in white gloves, so as to ensure that the oils and dirt on their fingertips do not transfer onto the page (or, in some cases, sweat). This isn’t just something where you wash your hands and are good to go–no oil, no dirt. In exchange, beautiful information and breathtaking books.
This is only the third such library I’ve been to, and I loved it. It has a different smell than other libraries, perhaps because of how careful one must be to keep the books happy. Perhaps this is something of a modern fairy ring. Fairy rings were supposed to serve as a bridge between two worlds, and if you’ve ever visited one, you sometimes do feel like you’re not quite in this world any more. But books–books are an entire series of worlds, even when they are talking about this one. They’re not just portals between worlds, they’re portals in time. So just maybe today’s fairy rings don’t have to be trees and a clearing, or mushrooms. Maybe brick walls will work just as well.