Underground at the Huntington Library

One of the rewards of being a docent with the LA Conservancy is the special tours that come up. Things are changing here, what used to be formal gardens and classic sculpture now has modern items, like this famous Calder and many of the gardens are becoming native and low water.

We came to see the underground portion of the library. Most people are familiar with the Huntington Gardens as well as the artwork, namely British paintings such as Blue Boy and Pinky.  But really the heart of this endeavor is the incredible library. There are always very important manuscripts on display, and yet, so much more is happening behind the scenes – or rather underground.In vaults such as this, climate controlled, behind gates, every which way of preventing fire. There is a massive underground warren that no-one ever sees. Henry Huntington himself collected important documents and since his death the library has grown to be one of the premier libraries in the world. New and old documents and artifacts are either purchased or donated.Signs like this are all over the place. All the windows are completely UV blocking – so the people are secondary. You need vitamin D – go outside! You are cold? Put on a sweater.Although the card catalogs are being digitized, some of these old cabinets are still around. The early attempts at digitizing in the 90’s didn’t work so well, better keep the paper around.The Rothenberg reading room, where many of the 1,700 researchers come to use the library. Think about it, 1,700 researchers a year isn’t a lot. Some are on fellowship for a year, others need to get approval and pay their own way.This is what one expects a library to look like. Very clear instructions, many of the manuscripts are original, one of a kind, they must be protected. When exiting the library, someone checks your bags – no thievery please!Here is a more modern reading room, also lovely. I couldn’t get a picture, the angle wasn’t right, but there is a wonderful Old bookcase called the Shakespeare cabinet, made of woods that would have been mentioned in his works. Henry Huntington bought it himself and filled it with original folios of the plays. These are now in the vaults, with facsimiles  on the shelves. Here are a handful of the books written by researchers in the last year. Every year they switch out the books, to showcase what that years research led to. There were many other books, I wasn’t going to take pictures of them all.

I’ve shared some images, the tour itself was fascinating, but not everything is worth a picture. One thing that is very interesting is the cooperation between libraries. For instance they have all the original work and notes of Octavia Butler – one of these days someone will rediscover here and do some serious research. She was approached just a year before she died and asked what she planned to do with her works, she had no idea. Therefore she was thrilled to donate it all to the Huntington, since she grew up right here. I’m sure she enjoyed the gardens and was thrilled to know they wanted her work.

In other cases somebody will offer documents and the Huntington will refer them to other institutions that may already have something in that field.

Then of course I went and saw the quilts and other objects like:A beautiful example of embroidery.Or these ivory clothes pins. Now I forgot to check, it is probably whale bone ivory. Since these are from the northeast. Clothespins today may have a clasp to open and close, but the size and shape hasn’t changed much.

I’m going back to spend more time in this exhibit.


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