My Life in the Stacks

One insatiable writer plumbs the depths of UT’s library system.

I like to say that the universe gave me the two gifts essential to becoming a writer: a bad childhood and a great agent. To that I’ll add a third: living in a city with a world-class university library and museum system.

Yes, Perry-Castañeda, Benson Latin American Collection, Fine Arts, Life Sciences, and all the rest of UT’s libraries and museums—I’m talking about you.

Every time I come up with a research subject so outré that I’m certain I will have stumped the UT system, I’m surprised all over again. Take my last project, a novel set on the island of Okinawa. Given that the book is told from the perspectives of both a current-day military brat and a native girl conscripted by the Japanese army to serve in its cave hospitals during the World War II Battle of Okinawa, I held out very little hope of finding much help here in Central Texas. Wrong.

A quick search of UT’s online catalog turned up astonishing finds. Though I am one of those who mourned the passing of the card catalog—all those scholar-begrimed remnants of past searches—I happily embraced a glass of wine and a laptop in bed while I mapped out the treasures that awaited me on the Forty Acres. My list included books on Okinawan funerary rituals; a first-person account of growing up on the island around the turn of the century; and typed Army reports from shortly after the war detailing everything from sweet potato production to courtship rituals. No shopper on Thanksgiving poring over the Black Friday ads could have been more excited than I was.

Bright and early the next day, a bubble of scavenger-hunting joy rising within me, I twirled through the rotating front door of the PCL. Inside, I scurried off to gather my next set of clues by matching the catalog numbers of my desired items with the library’s directory, which revealed where BL 2215 O4 L4 1966 and all the other wonders I sought were shelved.

recife_alcade01Upstairs in the stacks, that wonderful old book smell engulfed me. Even though Google says this evocative fragrance is simply lignin—the stuff in trees that keeps them from drooping—breaking down into its wee vanilla-smelling polymer units, to me that smell will always be the pulse-quickening, fox-and-hounds scent of discovery. Following my trail of catalog numbers through the PCL’s maze of tall metal shelves, I made my way to so many happy chunks of book cheese that I was staggering under their weight by the time I hit checkout.

Given UT’s astonishing infinite renewal policy, it is theoretically possible that I could have held onto my finds until they were pried from my cold, dead hands. Months later, however, when I was deep into writing the Okinawa book, one after another, several of my major sources were recalled. By the fifth recall notice, I began to panic. Who was this mystery researcher, my rival for sources about the same remote chain of Pacific islands that I was interested in? A visiting scholar? Another novelist with the exact same idea as mine? A big name, Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist who would publish long before me? Terrified that my entire project was doomed, I slipped several notes into the next book that I was asked to return. I included my email address and a studiedly casual, non-threatening message asking the unknown borrower what her interest in Okinawa was. Yes, “her.” I’d pretty much concluded that my competitor was Doris Kearns Goodwin. And then I waited, trying to figure out what I’d work on once I found out that DKG was all over Okinawa. A week later, I received a lovely note from an undergrad telling me that she was writing a paper for her “Religion and Family in Japanese Society” class, and that my sources would be returned shortly.

Though the PCL is my go-to library, I’ve trolled them all, and each has its own character. The PCL is modern, airy, and efficient. The Benson Latin American Collection near the LBJ Library is bright and cheery with the primary colors of folk art displays and its very own totem, a colossal stone Olmec head, outside. The Fine Arts Library is the place to check out albums from the ’50s with hilarious Mid Mod covers and students with artisanal facial hair wearing wool knit caps in the middle of summer. But for atmosphere, none of them can beat Life Sciences. The stacks of this library, located in the Main Building, are a warren of narrow aisles; dimly-lit staircases; uneven, creaking floors; and shadowy corners. Not the place you want to be on a dark and stormy night. Yet that is precisely where, in 1974, I fell in love with the UT library system.

I was a graduate student with a fellowship in journalism, and I’d just snagged my first big assignment: a lengthy feature for the Daily Texan’s late, lamented, monthly supplement, Pearl magazine. My subject was a troop of macaque monkeys saved from extermination by Claud Bramblett of UT’s anthropology department and resettled on land donated by a rancher in South Texas. All the sources for my article were secreted away in those spooky stacks. After snatching up the books I needed, I descended to the library’s downstairs reading room, which is as serene and stately as the stacks upstairs are creaky and freaky. I luxuriated in the reading room as I learned about the troop’s origins in the snowy mountains outside Kyoto while watching my fellow students toil past, sweating in the Texas heat.

The hardest workout I gave UT’s libraries, however, came when I dived into a couple of subjects that are the sacred domain of insiders, buffs, and aficionados, all of them eager to expose any poseurs, frauds, or newbies in their midst. I speak of rodeo, flamenco, and all matters pertaining to the Civil War and the American West. It was this last arena that I entered when I attempted to write a book about the Buffalo Soldiers. Daunted by the level of expertise I’d have to acquire simply to know when to call a firearm a gun and when it was a rifle, I punted and—armed with only general sources and a bit of archival digging—I wrote the story as a screenplay. The prop mistress could decide if a character should be carrying a Springfield musket or a Henry repeating rifle.

Apache rodeoRodeo, the setting for my fourth novel, was another, more manageable, story. For this book I needed to know all about the world of offbeat rodeos—women’s, police, prison, African-American, Native-American, Mexican-American, old-timers, gay, and kids. I even heard about a nude rodeo. In California, naturally. But I never got close enough to that one to learn the true meaning of bareback riding. To say nothing of rawhide. The UT libraries had all that I needed to learn enough so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of the buffs. They had everything from novels about the hardscrabble life of a cowboy on the rodeo circuit, to a guide to becoming a rodeo clown, to a book of feminist poetry about being the lone woman at the rodeo, to Foghorn Clancy’s 1952 epic, My Fifty Years in Rodeo: Living with Cowboys, Horses, and Danger.

UT was there again when I needed to cram my head full of enough data, both basic and obscure, to approach the denizens of my next subject: flamenco dance. In Flamencolandia the watchword is always puro, and  los aficionados are ever-alert to sniff out the frauds and fakes through so much as a misplaced accent. Los dios help the bumpkin who slips up and calls el arte “flamingo.”

Luckily, UT had my back and served up books about everything from flamenco’s ancient origins in the temple dances of India to the ’50s Beatniks who thought studying flamenco guitar with the Gypsies in Spain was the coolest, Daddy-o. With UT’s help, I bulked up my mental files enough that I was able to take an assignment from O Magazine to investigate the question, “Can a middle-aged woman still get her flamenco groove on?” The answer turned out to be “no,” but with the knowledge base I’d acquired haunting the stacks, I was able to understand what transpired in the classes I took and not embarrass myself in front of the artists I interviewed.

Other assignments, novels, and screenplays followed. UT always had what I needed, whether it was information about a lady anatomist in 16th-century Italy who performed dissections in a hoop skirt and lace ruff, or songs sung by the black women in the Parchman Penitentiary sewing room recorded by John Lomax—the Texas Exes’ first secretary and former editor of the Alcalde. I was always certain to discover what I needed back in the stacks where the only sound was the rattling of carts as librarians reshelved books.

No find gave me greater pleasure than when I came upon a translation of a collection of Okinawan short stories which turned out to be the key that unlocked my last novel. After years of researching and writing, I recently declared the book finished. As I packed up the towers of books I’d had out on indefinite loan, it felt as if I were giving away my baby’s outgrown clothes. I’d reached the end of the hothouse period of gestation and coddling with carefully strained facts and would now have to send my offspring into the world.

I retraced my treasure map, returning all the books, reports, and collections to their various homes. My last stop was where it had all begun: the PCL. There, just to chase away a little case of the empty-nest blues, I settled in behind one of their computers and idly entered a few keywords pertaining to my latest, impossibly obscure idea. The screen filled with all manner of tantalizing titles. Did I dare? Was it too soon? Before I could answer, my head filled with a vanilla fragrance and the sound of a solitary cart clanging in a deserted aisle.

Sarah Bird, MA ’76, is the author of Above the East China Sea, which will be published next May 2014 by Knoph.

Illustrations by Eduardo Recife. Photo: The author and a friend she met while researching rodeos. Courtesy Sarah Bird.


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