Of all the offices lining the long corridor beneath the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Room 26 has the best — and perhaps the only — door collage. It features, among other things, a magnet advertising a cupcake truck in Austin, a New Year’s note from a French book dealer, and an art postcard that posits, “What if Nancy were an acid freak?”
For the past seven years, this office has housed Timothy Young and Nancy Kuhl, the curators responsible for “Room 26: Cabinet of Curiosities” — a blog featuring “new acquisitions, unique documents, and visual and textual curiosities” from the collections of the Beinecke. Now in its third year, the blog serves a similar purpose as the door display, but for a wider, virtual viewership.
“It’s a place to show the bits and pieces that surround us and inspire us,” Young said.
The blog is simple. Every Monday and Thursday, the curators, who manage and acquire materials for the library, upload images from their own digital cameras of items they’ve come across in the Beinecke’s collection. Each post has a title, a brief identifier and a date. The pictures speak for themselves.
“We try to show things that are on the fringes,” Young said. “The kind of stuff people might not assume is in the library.”
Kuhl is the curator of poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature; Young is the curator of modern books and manuscripts, with special interests in human sexuality and children’s literature. It’s easy to guess who chose the lesbian pulp novels and who put up the postcard from Langston Hughes’ trip to Russia that states, “Hot Greetings! … If you go back to America, send please to me typewriter.”
Sometimes the curators post around a general theme. They do cute nods to the holidays: This Thanksgiving, the blog served up photos of big meals and their eaters — James Joyce, the whole pack of Romanovs. Other groupings are curated more deliberately. For years, Kuhl said she kept coming across photos of American writers in the exact same spot in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, feeding pigeons.
“We think of the modernist period as a really international conversation, but William Carlos Williams lived in Rutherford, New Jersey,” Kuhl said. “These pictures remind us that these giants of American literature were also American tourists.”
Some posts seem to expose a secret. An 1806 exercise book is open to a tiny doodle. A book’s exposed inside jacket reveals a scribbled drinking tally (“3 years: 79 gallons of gin, 7 gallons of Jamaican rum, 29 bottles of burgundy…”).
Much of the blog’s content is already available online in the Beinecke’s vast digital image database. But to find the five dramatic color photographs of African-American poets selected for “Room 26,” the viewer would have to scroll through over 9,000 portraits in Carl van Vechten’s photographic archives.
“Room 26” gets about 300 hits a day. But the curators said that sometimes an outside site will link to the Beinecke blog and readership will jump more than tenfold. The image-oriented “Room 26” usually attracts traffic from design blogs, but once, numbers spiked because a post featuring death masks was mentioned on a goth site.
Kuhl and Young said their blog serves a dual purpose: it exposes the Beinecke’s holdings to people who cannot visit, and inspires Yalies to investigate the library’s resources.
Now, the curators can direct undergraduates who don’t make it in Yale’s boxiest building until they’re scrambling for a senior essay topic to the blog as a good place to start.
Though the comments do reveal a lot of librarians (“This is why I became an archivist!” Debi exclaims), not all visitors are familiar with research.
“I love tweed,” Young said, gesturing towards a roomful of academics hunched over magnification stations. “But we can break through these circles, push what we have out a bit.”
Humor is a regular inhabitant of “Room 26.” Sometimes it’s the campy subject headings, sometimes it’s the quaint prurience of another era — in the 1910 novelty baseball card, “Covering Left Field,” a sportsman places his glove over a woman’s clothed left breast.
Young described the blog’s tone as “tongue and cheek a little bit.” Sighing, he admitted, “We like some puns. We write reports all day. It’s our outlet.”
But for every quirky post, there’s another motivated by aesthetics. Last week, Young put up a set of snapshots from a book of seaweed specimens, preserved like pressed flowers.
“Sure, this plays a role historically,” Young admitted, explaining that the specimens were taken from the 1853 Perry Exhibition to Japan. “We say it’s all highly intellectual, but really, we just fall in love with an object.”
“Room 26” and Room 26 are similar.
“The blog is the exact same thing we do across the room,” Kuhl said. “Tim is always saying, ‘Oh my god, look at these playing cards, you’re not going to believe this.’ ”
The cards Kuhl mentioned were hand painted by Russian prisoners. The fronts are ornately stenciled; the backs are pasted with magazine pinups.
“When I first saw these, I thought ‘What in the world is this?’” Young said. “And then I thought, ‘What conditions lead someone to make this?’ ”
For someone to be able to ask these questions in the first place, they might have to visit the blog.