Should I take off my shoes? I wondered as I opened the rather plain door leading to the Notre Dame Archives, on the sixth floor of the Hesburgh Library. TSA screening was on my mind, since I had recently read the archives’ rules.
Just as certain substances are banned from an airline carry-on, ND Archives bans a lot of items: no pens, no digital cameras, no voice recorders, no food, no coats, no purses, etc. etc. Once I made it past the first hurdle and gained entrance to the reading room, I had to read and sign my agreement with the several procedures listed on a special form. This time, it wasn’t TSA that came to mind; instead, I had visions of a scowling, tight-lipped schoolteacher, ready to smack my errant hand with a ruler should I get the precious files out of order.
Fortunately, the real-life humans I dealt with dispelled my notion of being captive in a Dickensian orphanage. One of the archivists quickly placed the files I had requested in front of me, gave me not one but two pencils and told me to ask if I had any more questions or needs. No one stayed to look over my shoulder.
Sitting at the plain, brown table in the quiet reading room, whose window offers a fine, framed view of Mary on the Dome, I began scanning some old correspondence. Again I felt transported, this time to the turn of the 20th century. But it was an uneasy residence. As I read through the letters to and from Warren A. Cartier, an 1887 civil engineering graduate who funded the University’s first enclosed football stadium, I realized that people who had died before I was born, people who had never heard of Facebook or Twitter, were losing their privacy just as surely as we are today.
As I continued reading, I hoped the generous Cartier wouldn’t have minded me snooping into his affairs. And despite the fussy, but necessary, rules, I grew to appreciate Notre Dame Archives and its careful tending of the past. For the area’s somewhat funereal presence had actually whisked me on a magic carpet ride through the dust of the ages, offering me a glimpse of lives lived, stories worth telling, ideas worth pondering.
Carol Schaal is managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.