Keepers of the Secrets: “I was told that the most interesting man in the world works in the archives division of the New York Public Library”

James Somers:

I was told that the most interesting man in the world works in the archives division of the New York Public Library, and so I went there, one morning this summer, to meet him. My guide, who said it took her a year to learn how to get around the Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street, led us to an elevator off Astor Hall, up past the McGraw Rotunda, through a little door at the back of the Rose Main Reading Room. Our destination was Room 328.

A sign above the door called it the “Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Rare Books and Manuscripts.” Inside, there were a handful of quiet researchers stooped at large wooden desks, and in the corner, presiding over a cart of acid-free Hollinger document boxes, was the archivist Thomas Lannon.

Lannon is younger than you’d expect, just thirty-nine years old. Clean shaven, with slacks, well-kept shoes, and a blue knit tie over a light button-down shirt, he looks less like an assistant director for manuscripts/the acting Charles J. Liebman curator of manuscripts than a high-level congressional aide. He talks with a kind of earnest intensity, and fast, with constant revisions, so that he sounds almost like a scientist who can’t quite put his discovery into words.

Having grown up in Exeter, New Hampshire, Lannon had always wanted to get to New York, the fount of his heroes (Sonic Youth, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg). But he makes a point of the undistinguished academic career that led him to the library a decade ago. He went to Bard (“a middling to decent liberal arts school”), where he first met his now-wife, also an archivist, in an early Greek philosophy class. Later, he studied library and information science at Pratt, before getting a master’s in liberal studies at The Graduate Center at CUNY.

Before he started pulling out boxes, I was asked to trade my pen for a pencil, for fear that I might get ink on the ledger from the late 1700s that came out of the first one. Lannon held it with bare hands (because gloves, I learned later, would dull his sense of how fragile a page is). The ledger belonged to Samuel Bayard, a wealthy New York landowner whose ancestors had married into the Stuyvesants, and whose estate, when he died, may have fueled the feud between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. It seemed full of accounting minutiae, Lannon said, but if you knew what you were looking for it told a story.

That was the way it was with archives. He flipped to page 19, which assessed the value of a plot of land that Bayard owned, a so-called “negro burial ground.” “Everyone talks about how in archives you find things,” Lannon said. “But this shows the moment when something disappeared.” This entry, he explained, was the last surviving reference to the burial ground, which was on land at New York City’s 1750s border near Duane and Reade streets. Shut down in the 1790s, the burial ground disappeared from popular memory, remaining known to history only through documents like this.

Lannon had a story like this for every box he showed me. In one, among administrative debris, there was an investigation by the New York Academy of Medicine into marijuana, signed in ink by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. It was the first American study to declare that the drug wasn’t addictive or dangerous. In another, there were records from the sign-making company that built what it called “spectaculars” around the city, like a Camel Cigarettes billboard in Times Square that actually blew smoke, and the New Year’s Eve ball.

In still another box, a diary from the 1840s of a sixteen-year-old girl. The July 7 entry tells of encountering Mr. Levi, a Jewish man, on her walk around the neighborhood. “This is an account of the peopling of New York, where you have a well-to-do daughter going for a walk, exploring the city, meeting someone from another background, and sort of marveling over the way they live,” Lannon said. “Mr. Levi who lived in that house wrote no books, left no records, we have no idea who he is except here he is in this diary.”

The New York Public Library’s Schwarzman building is most famous for the ornate and cavernous Rose Reading Room, now reopened after two years of restoration. The stacks under the library can hold 4 million books (the actual number in storage is lower, though no one is quite sure), which are delivered to the reading room by 950 feet of miniature rail running at 75 feet per minute.

But the real gem of the library, in Lannon’s view, is the stuff that you can find only in boxes like the ones now strewn across the table. “You can get a book anywhere,” he said. “An archive exists in one location.” The room we’re standing in is the only place that you can read, say, the week’s worth of journal entries in which New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal contemplates publishing the Pentagon Papers. It’s the only place where you can read the collected papers of Robert Moses, or a letter T.S. Eliot wrote about Ulysses to James Joyce’s Paris publisher, Sylvia Beach.