“The Good Librarian”

Today I came across a blog post by the archivist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution Archives, where some of Ona Šimaitė’s papers are held. Šimaitė, of course, is the subject of my second book manuscript, Beloved Profession, whose impending publication I hope to announce very soon.

I sat with the Hoover Institution’s Šimaitė collection for a week or so during my round-the-world research trip in 2003-2004, taking the train every day to Stanford from San Francisco, where my cousin was putting me up. At first I was disappointed by the find, wanting to hear more of my librarian’s stories in her own voice (most of Hoover’s Šimaitė papers consist of  letters written to her, rather than by her). But by the time I was finishing my book, portions of the Hoover collection proved to be valuable in ways I hadn’t foreseen, particularly a set of letters written by a translator named Vytautas Kauneckas.

Kauneckas and Šimaitė had one misfortune in common: each had a beloved young woman in their lives (Kauneckas’s daughter; Šimaitė’s niece) who suffered from schizophrenia in Vilnius. The Kauneckas letters turned out to be an important resource for me to write a chapter about what it meant for young women to have a mental illness in the USSR of the 1950s and ’60s. Both Šimaitė’s correspondence with her niece and the Kauneckas letters offered up a devastating and rare portrait of female madness behind the Iron Curtain.

It was yet another instance when the thread of a life took me to places I never would have thought to go, and where I learned more than I ever could have predicted.

Thanks to the archivist David Jacobs for giving Šimaitė a stronger electronic presence. I hope to make her story more widely known soon.

You can read David Jacobs’ post called “The Good Librarian” here.

[Photo by Appleswitch]

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2 Replies to ““The Good Librarian””

  1. I watched this lecture some time ago, actually, when I was feeling lost and needed some mentoring. There’s a lot that resonates with me in it, though I’d forgotten most of it until I rewatched the clip just now. What I recognize most is the idea of “flotsam and jetsam” (like the Hoover letters, in my case) becoming central to a work. This process, whereby the seemingly irrelevant slowly becomes vital, is (for me) a result of patience and faith. A big part of writing, I think, is hanging on to the belief that a project will come together, even when you’re lost.

    I’ve also had many weird coincidences like the ones Amy Tan describes: finding my grandmother’s misshelved letters in an Ohio archive by accident, for example. In these instances, it’s not about focus: no amount focus can make such things happen (can it?). Like Amy Tan, I too have felt the universe trying to tell me something, and have had the feeling that my grandmother’s ghost was talking to me. When this happens, I do my best to listen and do what I’m told.

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