Daily Archives: June 24, 2009

What David McCullough Said

If learning to use the library were the only thing students learned in school, they’d be far ahead. College isn’t necessary when one has access to Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. You could turn students loose here for four years, with librarians’ help, and they’d learn more, maybe better, than they’d learn in college.

Historian, author, David McCullough . . .

The library is the heart of this community, of any community. It’s an especially rich community here in Oakland, with the university libraries nearby.

. . . spoke to Carnegie Library staff last week.

CLP Main Library/Museum complex is the best example in the nation of no barriers existing between subjects. Science, art, and music flow together. CLP Main is stronger because of the proximity to museums, giving kids the freedom to rove, as I did while growing up in Pittsburgh. The first book I checked out at CLP using my new library card was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I remember it like I remember getting my first driver’s license.

His eloquent, high spirited remarks . . .

Curiosity makes us human. It separates us from the cabbages.

. . . pushed my pencil into action, . . .

I am amazed at how much librarians know. My friend, Peter Drummey, head librarian at Massachusetts Historical Society, knows more than anyone in the world. Peter has no advanced degree, he just reads everything.

. . . and I paraphrase his words in these notes.

My first book was The Johnstown Flood. I saw photos of the flood in WaDC, checked out a book about the flood that was very disappointing, then read another one even more disappointing. I said to myself, “Why not write the book about the Johnstown Flood you’d like to read ?” I didn’t have a clue how to do historical research. During lunch hours I visited the NY Public Main Library, starting in the genealogy department in an attempt to find out about the lives of anonymous people who lived in Johnstown. The librarian suggested I start with death dates, then find obits in the local paper, which would list relatives. Maybe, the librarian told me, I could track down folks still living who remember the flood, or family stories of the flood. The librarian said to check the DAB. I said, yes, of course, went back to my desk, ashamed to admit I didn’t know what DAB meant. What the heck was it? [It’s the Dictionary of American Biography] Now my advice is: Don’t hide what you don’t know at the library. Get down on the floor if necessary and make yourself humble!

David McCullough’s books include:

There’s nothing like holding Theodore Roosevelt’s diary in your hands – it’s the real thing – it’s real. Viewing microfilm of the diary, I could see that one entry was covered entirely with an ink blot, and it was the day Roosevelt’s father died. I traveled to Washington to see the actual diary at the Library of Congress. A very helpful librarian asked the LC lab to work to reveal what they could of the entry under the ink blot. After a few weeks I got a call. Not all of the entry was visible, but these words: “Angry at myself for getting tight.” Roosevelt’s brother was an alcoholic. Theodore didn’t drink before or after that day.

People ask if the internet doesn’t make my research easier. On the internet or in stores it’s not possible to get help like the help librarians give. And the internet isn’t very useful for the kind of original research I do, since I use mostly primary sources, that is, original documents. The internet is good for buying old books quickly, which used to take years to track down.

Here is an author . . .

When trying to understand a life, read not only what the person wrote (letters, diaries, etc.), but what they read. We don’t understand this: we are what we read.

John Adams read the great 18th century writers: Pope, Swift, Defoe, Johnson. In his writing, as in the writing of his contemporaries, famous lines attributed to him were actually written by the famous writers he and his friends all read and knew. Quotation marks were not used. There were no rules for punctuation. This was not plagiarism, since everyone would have recognized these quotes.

. . . who thinks hard about process . . .

I do preliminary research (approximtely 25-30%), then begin writing. Only when writing do you discover what you need to find out. Research is an addiction, too. At some point you have to stop, or else not write anything. Besides research and writing, thinking is most time consuming, and most important. In the shower I think, write . . . my wife says, “Stop writing!” as the water runs on. I wake up at night writing in my mind.

People ask me what the theme of a book is, and I make something up. But really I have no idea while I’m working on a book. That’s why I write, to find out.

. . . and who loves the library.

It’s hugely ironic that the information age will leave few records. Write letters and diaries if you have any interest in immortality, and give them to CLP. People will study your writing for years.



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