On Washington, DC (and sentimentality)

Two things (so far):

– One: the Librarian of Congress retired today. There’s much to be said, I’m sure, about his retirement. (Not by me, though.) I was in a meeting when the news broke, with a Web archivist and another individual in charge of digital preservation and initiatives and efforts. We were sitting at a round table in a room I’ll never be able to find again. Green walls. A person who’s name I do not know said, “Holy shit!” from his desk, and invited us over to watch the announcement, which was delivered to Library employees via video. And here’s what I’ll remember most about that moment, I think: once the video had ended, the Web archivist I was with turned to the group and said, “We have to figure out how to archive this.” (The extension on the video was .tempvid, for what it’s worth.) And that was it. And I know that doesn’t seem – or doesn’t need to seem – monumental, but, for me, it felt slightly stunning. To be in an environment where the record is someone’s first thought. To be around people who think about information that way. As something to not only be consumed, but something to be saved.

– And, two: I went to a talk over lunch today (a great Library of Congress perk, by the way: talks, and lots of them) by Nathan Salsburg, who spoke about his work with the Alan Lomax Archive, the American Folklife Center, and on. At some point during the talk, Nathan mentioned sentimentality, and I derailed a little. (Sorry, Nathan.) His point, I think, was that Lomax was often criticized for being sentimental. As if sentimentality is – or was – something to be ashamed of. (Lomax fired back, at a later date, by saying: It is only a few sentimental folklorists like myself who seem to be disturbed by this prospect today, but tomorrow, when it will be too late – when the whole world is bored with automated, mass-distributed video music, our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture.)

Here’s where I derailed, and what I’ve been thinking about since I moved – showed up to stay temporarily? – here: I like sentimentality. I have been told – on multiple occasions, by multiple people – that I am too sentimental. (I remember one instance in particular. This was before I had left Saint Louis for Iowa, but had already made the decision to leave. I was eating lunch with a friend. He was – he is, he will always be – sick, and ever-aware of his mortality. So I was, too. I asked him if he’d consider visiting me in Iowa City, and he laughed – and his laugh was, in that moment, my favorite thing about him – and said No. He was smiling. And I remember pouting: but, please, I’d said. Because, because, what if you, and then I trailed off. He told me I could visit him as often as I wanted to in Saint Louis and then made a joke about cornfields. And then he read my face, I know, and reached across the table to grab just one of my hands with both of his. Panther, he said, which was his nickname for me, You’re too sentimental. I think about that moment weekly, probably, and him, often. I haven’t seen him, in the flesh, since. But every once in a while – when he’s very sick, I think, and scared – he reaches out early in the morning, after I’ve gone to sleep, and leaves me voicemail messages on my phone, one after the other: Panther, it’s lonely here, and I can’t reach the remote; Panther, have you ever read anything by…; Panther, do you remember that time we…; Panther, Panther, Panther.)

This whole adventure here – at least so far – has been sentimental. Washington makes me think about San Francisco in the most bizarre ways: the walk I used to take from McSweeney’s, up Valencia, across twenty-second, and how warm the sun always felt there, how close it seemed to be to my skin, how, in the Mission, it’d fight the fog with everything it had (and win). I walk here, too. Far further than I did in San Francisco. A mile and a half to the Library, a mile and a half home. I can do it without a map now. I know the name of the crossing guard that stands outside the elementary school on Tennessee Street, and he knows mine. I pass a bookstore on East Capitol on my way to – and on my way back from – work, that is never open when I walk by. I pass people who know each other, who walk their dogs together, who relax – they really do – beneath the trees in Lincoln Park, business attire on, their dress shoes at their sides. There are corner markets, and there are flowers, and there are bricks broken apart by the roots of trees that were planted long before the sidewalks were laid down.

And the Library: I am sentimental about the noises the elevator makes as it passes each floor (it sounds like a telephone ringing), about the dark green of the Science Reading Room in the Adams building; about the four doors it takes to enter the bathroom. The silliest things. The tunnels beneath the buildings, which are real. The people who know each other there, who stop and chat and hug. About the book trucks, all marked with different acronyms. Some of the Library’s hallways seem abnormally small, like I should keep my head down as I walk around. (Some of them seem huge.) I’ve eaten my lunch, alone, in the cafeteria every day this week. From the windows of the cafeteria, you can see the city. I split my time between looking out the window, and people watching. Because everyone here is more interesting than I am: the way they carry themselves, the way they interact with their peers, the things they read while they’re alone. It’s all great.

People keep asking me about the Library: What are you doing? and Are you having fun? and What is Web archiving? (Your answers, which I do owe you: looking at data in spreadsheets, going to meetings, thinking about permission and access and the legality of what it is that we’re doing; Yes, so much fun; and I’ll let you know in six weeks. Maybe.)

I want this to be a sentimental experience, I’ve decided. (Scoff, scoff, scoff.) I do. I’m exhausted at the end of every day – partly because I’m not used to walking three miles a day in dress shoes, I think – and it feels good. And I think of nothing else other than what’s in front of me because all of this is brand new. When I walk down East Capitol in the mornings I think, Holy shit, I’ve never done this before. And when I visit the grocery store here I think, Holy shit, I’ve never done this before. And when I get lost in the tunnels at the Library I think, Holy shitI’ve never done this before (and Holy shit, I don’t think I’m allowed to be in this room), and when I listen to people like Nathan talk, and when I listen to conversations – actual, real conversations – about Web archiving, and when I face the city from the fifth floor of the Adams building, and when I buy a key chain from the National Archives, and when I sit beneath a tree, alone, at Lincoln Park, and when I buy twenty dollars worth of junk food at the corner store, and when I go a mile in the opposite direction of my house on my way home, and when I eat crab cakes at a dive bar that reminds me of Wisconsin, I think Holy shit, I’ve never done this before.

And it’s great.

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