People often think of history as a largely intellectual pursuit, the product of extensive reading and thinking in libraries and archives. And while it’s true that much of the historian’s craft involves these activities, the research process itself can be very hands-on. When you’re working with old documents that haven’t yet been catalogued or conserved, you’re quite likely to get filthy in the process, as the edges of carbon copies disintegrate on you, or a deteriorating leather binding stains your fingers. Since we’re simultaneously researching and assembling a collection, we’ve had many opportunities to roll up our sleeves and get down to the sometimes messy work of history.
I had just such an experience last week after going through a shelf full of old notebooks in the observatory library. It turned out to contain a number of gems: a blue exam booklet from Wesleyan in which Frederick Slocum had penned a log for a sailing journey he made between New Bedford and Bermuda in the 1920s, several decades’ worth of clock records, a stenographer’s notebook containing B. W. Sitterly’s notes from the 1932 eclipse trip to Conway, New Hampshire, and more.
Of course, after decades—and in some cases more than a century—on the shelves of Van Vleck, these notebooks are not all in prime condition. As I climbed down the ladder from which I had been accessing the shelf, I noticed that, in my research reverie, the dyes and papers and flakes of covers had coated my hands with a layer of historical grime.
The folks working on the telescope restoration clearly aren’t the only ones getting their hands dirty at Van Vleck this summer!