By CATHARINE MORRIS
All of a sudden I want to go to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. I hadn’t realized how spectacular it is: geometric marble and granite on the outside, and inside a massive soaring tower of bookcases encased in glass. And then there are the collections – ancient papyri, a Gutenberg Bible, Ezra Pound papers, Tocqueville manuscripts, Boswell family correspondence, the Mellon Chansonnier, sixteenth-century portolan charts, Alfred Stieglitz autochromes, a Gertrude Stein home movie . . . .
It was founded in 1963 by three brothers “linked from their earliest years by a deep affection, shared interests, and complementary though different talents and personalities”. It is celebrating its fiftieth birthday in style, as you might imagine, with a year-long programme of exhibitions, lectures, readings, concerts and conferences. Last week it honoured its international reach (it is open not just to its own students but to writers and researchers from all over the world) with a reception at the Athenaeum in London. Peter Ackroyd had been asked to say a few words about his own experiences at the library in the 1970s, when he was gathering material for his book on Modernism, Notes for a New Culture (1976; you can read the TLS's review of it here).
His first reaction to the building, he remembered, was surprise and admiration. “I wasn’t sure what it was. It was rather disorientating.” Nearby at that time was a sculpture by Claes Oldenburg of a cannon with a lipstick attached to it, which “added to a surreal Alice in Wonderland feel”. But the windows, he said, “shone with the light of interior knowledge . . . . The staff were as knowledgeable as any I have come across”. Judging by the atmosphere at the reception, its staff are also among the friendliest. Perhaps they are also among the most amusing. Ackroyd told us that when the library added his own papers to its collections – “much to my delight and pleasure” – he asked when the papers would be catalogued, and the conversation went on like this:
“Only when you’re dead.”
“I’ll let you know.”
“Don’t call us – we’ll call you.”
Top: Photograph by Alexandra Cavoulacos