The Wonders of the Linda Hall Library

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Linda Hall Library, by Nightryder84.

There is an institutional gem in Kansas City called the Linda Hall Library. Founded nearly 75 years ago, this library is one of the premier independent science, technology, and engineering libraries in the United States. It has a huge collection, including loads of old and rare books authored by the likes of Galileo and Newton. It is a fantastic place.

I also happen to be on the Linda Hall Library’s programming committee to help them think about events and programming. And when I was there last month, it quickly became clear that I had never really had a proper tour of the facility.

I thought in a tour I was going to learn more about the reading room or some of the history of the Hall family. And I did. But what the tour quickly became about was seeing the collections: the massive hidden side of the building that is not accessible to the reading public.

I was led through floor after floor (both above and below ground), through tunnels and walkways, by rows of moveable stacks in spaces that felt as spacious as tennis courts or football stadiums: all devoted to storing volumes of books and periodicals on the sciences.

I was enthralled. We walked by shelves full of Cyrillic lettering, obsolete card catalogs that lined the walls, drawers full of maps and photographs (including ones of the moon and stars). It was a smorgasbord of the technical. There were relief maps resting on cabinets, pneumatic tubes for receiving book requests from the reading room, and rooms devoted to digitizing old manuscripts, complete with sophisticated cameras and specialized cradles for these delicate and rare books.

In addition, as we walked through this space—one that has expanded and grown over many years—you could even see the passage of time in the different nature of the rooms, the styles of the stacks themselves, and much more. Walking through the collections was a kind of time travel, but for library and building technologies.

It’s been several weeks now since I visited and I am still thinking about this magical repository of knowledge. Too often we think of knowledge as a sort of disembodied information: open a web browser and all publications are able to be at your fingertips. But walking through the bowels of a library makes one realize the true physicality of knowledge. And what a beautiful and awe-inspiring physicality it is.

If you’re ever in Kansas City, please let me know: we’ll visit the Linda Hall Library together.


A couple additional links to share for the new year:

And then there’s this, from a conversation with Armando Iannucci:

Before that Mr. Iannucci was writing a dissertation at Oxford University about religious language in “Paradise Lost.” He dropped out when he realized that you can sing the opening lines of “Paradise Lost” to the tune of the “Flintstones” theme song. “That’s the point where I thought, OK, I’m not taking this seriously,” he says. “You can’t unhear that.”

Until next month.

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