As we hit the one year mark of special collections reading rooms closing around the world because of the pandemic, “primary source research” for many of us now consists of scrolling through our phones in search of photos of collection items from early 2020, the last time many of us set foot inside a reading room. While my daughters no longer complain, “Ugh, Mom, why do you have so many pictures of dumb manuscripts on your phone?,” I miss the weird juxtaposition of 400 year old manuscripts with photos of my non-Folger life.
When I started writing this post, it was going to be a lamentation on all of the useless manuscript images on my phone, snapped on the run, blurry, full of bodily shadows and actual feet and fingers, and often lacking identifying information. I had just gone through my photos of the past three years to see if any might be useful additions for our new Reference Image Collection in Luna, and was silently berating myself for not taking the time to tag them in Google photos or add them to my Tropy account while I still remembered what they were and why I took them.
That plan changed when I noticed that my last shadowy, blurry picture of a manuscript was taken on February 27, 2020 at 9:06am, along with several other pictures between 8:59 and 9:09am, and I started thinking about “last” pictures. The Folger had closed to researchers on January 4 because of our big renovation, and Collections staff were spending long hours in the chilly vault barcoding the entire collection before it became unavailable to us. I must have gone downstairs to check on something or respond to a question. While at the west end of the vault, I took a picture of a bunch of empty book trucks. I don’t know why.
A few seconds later I took a picture of the label on the end of aisle 131. Again, no idea why. At all.
Then I proceeded down the corridor, and after 7 minutes, snapped a picture of V.b.376. Now that’s a manuscript I’ve always wanted to write a Collation post about, so I assume I took this picture in order to remind myself to come back to it for my next post (a post that never materialized). Luckily, the call number is just visible, but blurry.
We acquired Lady Anne Waller’s spiritual and autobiographical journal (1646-1660) from Sotheby’s in December 2014. Like many of us, she was too busy to chronicle all of her sins and redemptions, and so between dated entries she captioned blank spaces with a general acknowledgment of God’s continual mercy upon her. In this case, she wrote in the middle of a blank page:
unknown—and forgotten mercys
In our strange deliverance
It is the last photo of a manuscript on my phone. Of a blank page, inscribed by a multi-tasking highly literate mom in charge of a sizeable household at Stanton Harcourt during a tumultuous time for her family and her country. Her inscription acknowledges that the blank space in her journal does not equate blank space in her life. Three minutes later I continued my journey east. I took a picture of three barcoding trucks.
In ten minutes on a Thursday morning, two weeks before all non-essential Folger staff began working from home, I took four pictures: of book trucks, aisle labels, barcoding stations, and V.b.376. These images then proceeded to get tangled up with all of the other photos on my phone, mostly taken by my children. Will I ever recover the actual purpose of my morning trip down to the vault on February 27, which probably had nothing to do with the pictures I took? The evidence forms no cohesive narrative. Or maybe it does. Maybe it records my chronic tendency to multi-task, and my overall sense that big changes were coming to the Folger and the world and that it wouldn’t hurt to chronicle the state of the vault at that moment and grab a quick photo for my next Collation post. The headlines that morning announced the first case of community spread in the U.S., and Mike Pence’s appointment as the head of the coronavirus task force.
For me, work-related on-the-run phone photos are a form of visual memoranda. They are meant to be placeholders and memory prompts that remind me to sign out a book or share a morsel of information with a colleague or researcher. It’s not a huge leap from my subpar modern breadcrumbs with their timestamp annotations to the inscrutable early modern notes, memoranda, and annotations in the Folger’s manuscript miscellanies, and to the annotated blank spaces in Anne Waller’s journal. These modern and early modern lapses remind us that we should give ourselves a break. We are busier and more stressed out than ever and will sometimes aspire to do things and fail. If we end up ignoring our visual, voiced, and textual notes to ourselves, or fail to record something at all, it is okay.
Like Anne Waller, we should acknowledge the unknown and forgotten mercies in our strange deliverance. We should forgive ourselves for the blurry before-times manuscript photos on our phone, and we should be grateful to Luna!
What’s the last photo you snapped of a collection item or work space before reading rooms closed? Or a photo that you had wished you had taken with more care, now that you don’t have access to the item? Share in comments or on Twitter, and tag @FolgerResearch!