Somewhere in the expansive stacks of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, a graduate student researcher, bibliophile, or Victorian-Era fanatic can find George Eliot’s “School Notebook”, the famed author’s first attempts at authorship during her pre-teen years. Eliot’s first notebook, gingerly preserved for nearly two centuries, is just one of thousands of archived works at the Beinecke made available to the public. The Beinecke is the largest building in the world reserved exclusively for the preservation of rare books and manuscripts. For a first-time visitor, its six-story above-ground tower of book stacks looks like a giant peg of fused pages dropped conveniently into a snug glass column. The stacks are housed in a rectangular prism with walls of Danby marble. The building stands regally in the center of Yale’s Hewitt Quadrangle and is pointed at daily by tour guides.
The Beinecke is a researcher’s nirvana. It's employees comb through thousands of yellowed letters, faded photographs, seemingly inconsequential ticket stubs and scribbled-on napkins, slowly piecing together the most intimate details of the lives of history makers such as Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. They seem to live by George Eliot’s creed: “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”
Tim Young, the Beinecke Library’s curator of eight years, echoes Eliot’s adage. “The job of curator is to bring things together” he says.
Young, the parent canary in this nest of literary treasurers, sits proudly in his black swivel chair. His office, split with Nancy Kuhl, the Curator of American Literature, is not an ordered space. But the calculated clutter is of a kind that only professionals or artists can produce: the thick stack of manila folders bloated with papers, a few wooden rulers waving from their perches in the pencil jar on the boundary between Young and Kuhl’s desks. The two have pushed their workspaces together and, were it not for the computer monitors in their desks’ centers, would be able to stare at one another during work. But the two have a strong rapport grounded in their shared love for archival science, so the physical contiguity of their spaces is comforting. After all, Young’s job demands endless collaboration with others. His curatorial “focus” is on 19th and 20th century European literature, avant garde movements, gay and lesbian history, printed ephemera, the history of finance, book arts and printing, children's literature, modern art and playing cards. With his hand in so many fields, Young is the go-to for conglomerate subjects.
“They call me a curator ‘at-large’. If someone’s papers show up and they were say, a poet and a gardener, I’ll say, do you want me to go ahead and handle this negotiation?”
Young’s job seems at-first like a padded librarian post. But he describes it with kinetic and invigorated terms in a clip uncharacteristic of the bespectacled, cardigan-wearing convention. While detailing his average morning, Young uses the word “triage” to describe his handling of emails and research requests. Just as emergency room nurses triage patients for treatment based on the severity of their symptoms, Young approaches his weekly mound of tasks with a calculated, trained method of prioritization — photograph collections here, slight-damaged manuscripts there. If George Chauncey walks in with a request for supplementary materials for his Lesbian and Gay History lecture, Young re-arranges his schematic entirely. Assisting faculty and providing teaching materials are top priorities.
In a library safeguarded by security officers and ubiquitous, motion-sensitive cameras, Young’s dress is sharp but laid-back. He sports a worn-in pair of lightweight camel tennis shoes and a quotidian brown sweater. Young, in his mid-forties, is trim and animated. His boyish grin compliments the gaiety of blue eyes unstrained by decades of heavy reading. His forearms never rest; Young illustrates in the air as he speaks. The sunshine spilling into his office from floor-to-ceiling windows accentuates his chipper demeanor. The windows open to Beinecke’s sunken courtyard, where Isamu Noguchi’s sculptures endure the recent snowstorm. Noguchi’s pyramid, circle and cube represent time, the sun and chance, respectively. The adjacent sculptures are fitting — Young’s life and career seem like a most fortuitous entanglement of universal forces and sheer luck.
“I grew up with a penchant for reading all the time, anything I could pick up. A lot of comic books. I was mad about comic books, mad about cartoon books,” Young shares with a sheepish grin. “But there was nobody looking down their nose saying ‘they’re not real.’”
Young’s childhood fascination never abated. The door to his office is plastered by miscellaneous placards, but the Marvel Comics poster dominates. Young’s mother was a nurse and his father worked as a mechanic for a national airline. They were Tulsa bourgeois — an earnest, lower middle-class family with four kids who went through the local public school system. Tim, the third boy, and his younger sister spent their free time and summers at the public library. He recalls being dropped off in the mornings and floating eagerly among the books until his wide-eyed presence became routine. In reading he found an unusual calm but a simultaneous torrent of new worlds and stimulation.
“The book that the librarian stopped me from checking out, because I’d read it so many times, was called the D’Aulaires’ Picture Book of Greek Myths. I was obsessed.”
At Will Rogers High School, Young was consistently bored. He mechanically completed assignments and sought out the occasional independent study. Despite taking Spanish, French, and Latin classes, Young never found his niche. But even though most graduates entered the work force or some technical school, Young’s parents were adamant about their kids attending college regardless of financial constraints. He recalls feeling overwhelmed. “I was floundering, thinking about what’s out there. A friend of mine went to business school at the University of Tulsa, so I said, ‘I’ll go to business school, too.’” But Young flubbed his scholarship forms and was denied aid. Devastated, he stumbled into the Office of the Dean of the Arts and Sciences. Susan Parr, the Dean, looked at Young’s transcript and offered him half-tuition in the Arts and Sciences Honors program, but on one condition: he had to enroll in her Faulkner seminar.
“I switched from business to English literature and never looked back. It was…complete serendipity, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Young writhes excitedly in his chair as he describes his first encounters with intellectual challenge. “The first semester, I realized: this is what real people do. They engage. They think. This is the world outside my high school.” Young read a novel a week and learned how to formulate theses and defend his claims. He learned how to synthesize complicated texts with his own interpretations. But he remained prudent. After all, he still had half of a tuition to pay. So Young returned to the one building he felt most welcomed in: the Tulsa Public Library.
“I worked during the school year shelving books and in the summers, I became the floating librarian.” Young filled in for vacationing librarians at one of Tulsa’s 25 branches on any given week. For the life-long bibliophile, each shift flew by. He spent the school years reading and the summers connecting eager patrons and disillusioned, bored youth with books; he’d finally found his niche…. Young maintains his indebtedness to Parr and his then-devastating screw-up of his financial aid forms. “Sometimes you pray that someone’s going to come along and shake you and say: ‘Hey look, this is what you gotta do.’ That rarely happens, but I got pretty close.”
After graduating from the University of Tulsa with a dual degree in English and French Literature, Young took a year off. His father’s job at the airlines offered an unexpected perk: Young could hop on any flight with an open seat at take-off. He flew, free-of-charge, to and from Germany to visit his brother. While in Europe, Young visited France, Italy, and Yugoslavia. He calls it his time of “wandering.” Whenever he found himself settling in for a long, transnational train ride, Young read. He finally accepted the way books blanketed his existence, and when he returned to the states he enrolled at the University of Texas library school.
In 1992, he joined the Beinecke as an archivist. His first project was to organize the Josephine Baker papers. Baker, the iconic African American actress who was the first to integrate an American concert hall, received the Croix-du-Guerre award from the French government for her role in the French Resistance during World War II and is an exemplar of the kind of multi-faceted icon that the Beinecke likes to chronicle. Most of her archives were destroyed in a house fire, but 10 boxes of her papers, photographs, programs, and letters were sent in by her best friend in England, and Young was put in charge of systematizing the fragments of memory into a coherent, researchable file. “That was my job: sitting around pieces of paper, trying to figure things out.”
All the curators at the Beinecke congregate in the basement prep room where they use standardized file folders, Mylar book straps and clear plastic viewers to study their materials. But each staff member can produce a unique biological compendium of the subject. For once, Young had formidable control over something larger than himself and his generation.
“When you deal with papers of, say, writers, you have to break organization rules because when you see the stacks of photographs, how do you arrange them? The arrangements will say something about how that person saw their life. Here are their pictures with their lovers; here are the ones with their best friends. The timeline is messed up, but you have to break those rules. You’re arranging someone’s life.” Though initially daunted, Young gradually welcomed this new dominion of historical reconstruction. He spent the next few years on Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound.
In 2002, he became a curator. His current post allows Young to delegate funding (usually donations from wealthy alumni or community members), coordinate original exhibits and give the occasional lecture on campus. His enormous purchasing power contrasts with his no-frills, frugal upbringing, but Young reminds himself to not get too “giddy.” “When I leave, I still have my mortgage, my heating bill… but when I come here, you know, I can do much more grandiose things here. It’s like putting on a new persona. With the acquisitions fund, I'm fortunate to be charged to spend it to do good things.” Nevertheless, Young balances the Beinecke’s more predictable purchases with some of his own ideas. That book he loved in elementary school?
“Recently, I was able to bring in all the original D’Aulaires sketches and pictures,” says Young, eyes alight. “It’s a dream come true. I’m doing the exhibit this summer.”
Fridays at five o’clock, Tim Young closes shop. After days of poring over meticulous details, he maximizes weekend leisure time. He visits friends, takes trips to New York City and tends to his gardens in Hamden.
“I’m also completely obsessed with music,” he says. “I’ve got 12,000 songs in my iTunes and write music articles for the Yale Review. I’ve written about modern Cabaret Singers, Cocteau Twins, little known bands like that.” All this… art, in myriad forms, doesn’t exhaust Young. “Music comes to me in little bits and pieces. It’s another way of taking in information. Maybe I don’t have to process it as a narrative right away. I don’t have to think right away. I can just listen to it. It’s more passive, whereas you have to engage when reading. When I listen to music, sometimes I’ll engage for a minute and hear something really mind-blowing I never picked up before.”
When contemplating his future, Young is blissfully astigmatic. “Well, like I said, I have my dream job. And I count my blessings every morning.” He pauses and tweaks the blonde stubble on his chin.
“But I would like to maybe run a small historical society or a grant foundation. I would love to be someone who goes out and decides funding for the arts. All I know at this point is that I want to retire early to Mexico and write.” Every winter for two weeks, Young flies down to Guanajuato, Mexico, where he suns and writes in historic Guanajuato. Perhaps it’s his career, which envelops him in ephemera, preserved memory, and scraps of history, that’s impelled Young to journal. Or perhaps it’s simply the dyed-in-the-wool love for books he’s nurtured all his life. But every year, Young compiles an original work that he, despite his many connections, never releases to publishing houses. Instead, he neatly packages and ships them to relatives and friends across the world. He calls it the La Nouvelle Revue Timothèse. Some years, the books resemble poetry anthologies. Others are disjoint sentiments printed on cardstock and cut to fit into make-shift CD cases, unconventional bindings. Young will make his 18th book this year. In an age of waning print media, Young isn’t too alarmed. He has faith in his trade. When describing his roles as archivist and curator, Young is assuredly optimistic.
“Nancy and I, we’re keeping the second Dark Ages at bay. All of this creative energy, impulses, and these products, the published books and paintings… it’s some kind of record that people did something and it may not matter, but in the existentialist view of the world, nothing matters, right? So you might as well have fun, right?”
Patrons who walk the dimly lit corridors of the Beinecke, where antiquated pages are given more care than the crispest, newest publications, often can’t grasp why. As the incessant demand for newer technologies becomes a societal norm, Young cling to the bibliophiles, the explorers, and the occasional student who mirrors his own eager self decades ago. “When people come in here, I can’t convince them that this all matters,” he says without a hint of qualm.
“But I can prove to them that this person and this person, this relationship, this empathy, created something else. Now that has value. Can you at least grant it that someone else’s joy, enlightenment, achievement is worth trapping somewhere? I mean, it happens. People come in here and ask, ‘Why the hell are you doing this stuff?’ But when there’s the occasional undergraduate who sees this and goes ‘Wow this is so great!’ And they starting seeing the world differently... I tell myself that’s enough.”
Tim Young believes in the power of the book over the encroaching power of bytes. If asked why, he can simply tell the story of when he drove the Book-Mobile for the Tulsa Public Library back in college.
“We went to the housing projects,” he recalls. “Very tough, very poor, and I was the skinny white boy. The kids would come in and just pummel you and try to rag on you and freak you out. That’s the way that they mediated the world. They said: ‘why are you coming to our project?’ But in the end, they would take a book. They needed to go in and maintain their street attitude, but they really just wanted a book to read. Once you realize that, the important thing is to make them leave with a book. Bookmobiles that still operate today plan for 50% losses, but those boys, they usually gave the books back. But hey, even if someone takes a book and doesn’t give it back? Maybe they’ll read it over and over again. That’s not the worst thing in the world.”