A Very Special Collection, or: An Extrovert in an Introvert's World

In college I kinda hated going to the library. As a transfer from community college, I never got an orientation to my school’s library and never really learned how to use it. I was horribly embarrassed by this fact and tried to hide it, even from the people who were most likely able to help me, the library staff. Disdainful undergraduate work-study desk assistants and burnt-out over-educated full time staff didn’t exactly shine to my kind. I felt like someone practicing how to ask for directions in a foreign country only to realize that you don’t understand the answer.

“Journals are kept in the 5th spiral.”

“Uhhhh…. quoi?”

Most of my memories of the library are of dejectedly wandering through the stacks for half an hour, going to catalogue, still not finding what I need, giving up, going home and emailing a friend from class to get a copy of their copy. Then I would avoid the library for a month.

My fear of being considered stupid was only part of the problem. I was also very uncomfortable just being in a library. Libraries, archives and other repositories of knowledge aren’t places that were built for people like me. I love learning new stuff and uncovering facts from primary sources, BUT I do not learn well in the traditional model of sit-quietly-and-read. I exclaimed in class a lot as a kid… and as an adult. I LOVED group projects, group discussions, asking questions, presentations, film projects, anything that involved a lot of talking and working with others. I HATED reading text books, writing papers, studying alone... Being alone. I felt sure that this was a defect. I tried very hard to do the things I hated, thinking I was doing learning wrong.

Libraries, with their intimidating atmosphere of quiet and their holier-than-thou inhabitants with their highlighters and those little sticky book flags and their general understanding of how to find stuff; libraries were hard. I bought the sticky flags, I wrote on notecards. I adopted a completely emotionless countenance, but my incapability to keep to myself always gave me away. Like a labrador puppy, I wouldn’t be able to focus surrounded by all the potential new friends. I wanted so badly to stop reading post-modern Anthropology and to connect with my fellow students instead. “Hey, aren’t you in my Feminist Philosophy class!?!” “What are you reading?” “Oooh, I like your highlighter with the sticky flag dispenser built in!” “Isn’t it so great us all being grown up and learning stuff!?!?” The restraint of these urges were more than I could bare.

Fortunately, as I get older, I seem to gain an appreciation for time spent alone. I have more friends in my life who are introverts. I have them studied and now know that all introverts don’t hate extroverts, they just can’t relate to them. Likewise.

I have also come to understand that there is no right or wrong way to learn, so I no longer feel bad for feeling like I need to interact in order to absorb information. I have friends who like to come with me on research trips now who I can quietly clutch while silently raising my eyebrows and grinning when I find some article from 1908 about the “Scourge of Vice,” or an ad for an electric belt to cure “seminal weakness” or “lost manhood.” 


For solo study trips, I have technology that enables me to burst out in delight in a more restrained way. I can email photos and post particularly excellent quotes on my facebook page. My phone in college didn’t include a texting plan. Wrap your brain around that, 20 year olds.

Recently, one of my librudies (library buddies…! ....!! ... no?), my friend Katie, came with me on a trip to two very special collections in Seattle. The Seattle Room at the Seattle Public Library and the University of Washington’s Special Collections Library. This was merely a recon mission. I wasn’t intending to do any real research, I just wanted to get the lay of the land for both of these collections. A huge part of researching any topic is just knowing where to go to get the answers to your questions. Who keeps which records? Where are hardcopies kept, and where are they indexed in micro-film? What is digitized and what do I have to see in person? I have been researching local history in Bellingham, Washington for 4 years now, and I still don’t have a complete grasp of what all is out there and how I can get access to it. For each new collection I visit, I try to first get a handle on exactly what they have at this bigger picture level before I start searching for records and documents specific to my research questions. It is harder than it sounds to avoid just pulling up a stack of the 1900s sensationalist Seattle newspaper The Patriarch to read scathing articles about the “immoral resorts” on Washington Street. But avoid I did, dear reader. Instead, I collected all the information I could about the two collections and am working on compiling this information to record here for the ages. My intention is to publish overviews of all the places I visit on my research trips in an effort to try to make these places more accessible.

For you see, while the idea of going to the very top floor or the very vertigo-inducing Seattle Public Library might sound daunting to many, I hope to assuage some of that all too familiar anxiety. If they are first assured by someone like me of what documents they can confidently ask for and expect to receive, if they know about Anne (the incredibly knowledgeable reference librarian), or the index of Seattle Times records you can EMAIL TO YOURSELF(!!!), then maybe they will be more likely to go and research their preferred topics, publish something valuable from their findings and add to the rich tapestry of historical thought that is getting more varied and fascinating by the day. (XOXO Historylink.org)

So, let’s do this. In my next two posts I will talk about the Special Collections at the University of Washington and the Seattle Reading Room. I will continue to publish overviews as I research, and hopefully this blog can become a resource for making Washington State History more accessible.