Friday, March 2, 2012

A Fire Drill at the Huntington Library

When the fire alarm sounded inside the Munger Research Center at the Huntington Library in San Marino, I had just finished reading a juicy letter. Not sexy-juicy, but full of juice because it provided details for my book about Ina Coolbrith, California's first poet laureate. Until I found this letter, I had only circumstantial evidence that Ina's caregiver had been acting in ways that made her a candidate for an insane asylum; now I knew exactly what she had done, and I could write a scene full of detail, a gold nugget for any book.

As the lights flashed and the alarm sounded with a decorum fitting for the library, the staff told us to exit immediately and leave everything behind. I walked away from the letter without having copied it into my computer.

Along with other researchers who pulled themselves away from centuries past, I blinked at the Los Angeles sunshine. In talking to the gentleman who shared my table that day, I didn't express concern for the tens of thousands of rare books or manuscripts, including the Gutenberg Bible, housed in the library.

"I hope the place doesn't burn down," I said. "I just found a really good letter."

He asked about it, and as I've been immersed in Ina's story for seven years, I gave him an earful about the letter and my project. I was still going on about Ina when members of the staff greeted my tablemate warmly, and he introduced me to each of them. The regard in which the curators greeted him made me take note of the name on his tag (all readers wear ID tags around their necks).

Staff announced that the alarm had been a drill, and we were allowed back in. I found my letter safe and I quickly typed its contents into my computer. Then I Googled "Tony Grafton" and learned that he was a Princeton history professor and the author of five books. His areas of expertise are the Italian Renaissance, the history of science, and classical scholarship.

Now he knows a bit more  about California's first poet laureate.


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