My taste in library books tends toward the old and sometimes obscure, and I thereby experience a pleasure younger, hipper readers will never know: a circulation card, glued to the back cover of the book and demarking its check-out history.
The content of these yellowing index cards depends on the era: All include typed title and author’s name, along with the book’s Dewey Decimal number. All provide for the due date, some for the date returned; these slots bear the aging inky impress of a small mechanical hand stamp, the kind whose date is manually adjusted each day by the turning of small cogs. The borrower’s name – written in cursive — is sometimes noted in the librarian’s hand, but often in the individual’s.
The cards – a long-ago casualty of digital technology – offer a visible provenance that computers cannot duplicate and modern privacy laws would not permit, a rustic record of particular human interest and touch. Their singular beauty lies in this specificity: the slightly or wildly askew date stamped by a librarian who might have been harried, or tired, or depressed. The scrawled signature, unique as a fingerprint, of a borrower who might have kept the book only briefly, as Verda Allen did The Biglow Papers in 1940, or renewed it time and again, as did R.B. Westbrook, enthralled in 1932 by Dippy’s Advertising Production Methods.
Some small delight arises in me when I discover one of these cards, and some small comfort that exists alongside but apart from the experience of the book itself.
If we are open and brave and willing to work as readers, and the author was likewise in the writing, we connect with that person as a seer whose understanding affirms and extends our own, or perhaps demolishes it so poetically that we cannot help but be illuminated.
But other borrowers are more our peers: out-of-time, out-of-space compatriots whose interest in the book joins them to us. In the parlance of evidence, circulation cards document a chain of possession, one kindred spirit to the next, holding, absorbing and then passing on a palpable artifact. When I am lonely, I imagine past borrowers of my book as that and something more — members of the possible tribe I keep hoping to find, the one to which I might belong.
But always I see in the humble, fading cards some poignant beauty: a recalling of those absent and, often, those dead, strangers we meet and recognize in a slender, dislocated space of mind and heart, as if time did not matter.