Sometimes when I'm alone in the stacks at the Society Library, it gets so loud I can't hear myself think. I never have this problem at the other libraries where I do my research. There, I look up a book or journal on the computer, fill out a call slip, and wait for my number to come up. Then I go sit somewhere, just me and my one volume, in peace and quiet.
Not so at the Society Library. Here, the thoughts don't appear in isolation, out of context, emerging singly from the deep recesses of a shelving system that's safely out of the earshot of scholars. Thanks to the Society Library's completely antediluvian policy of open shelving, I have to stand and listen to the whole of history in any one category. When I began my research toward writing a social history of the telescope, for instance, I soon found myself frequenting the low 500s in Stack 3. To my left were Galileo's writings, validating the Copernican view that the Earth goes around the Sun, not vice versa. In front of me were turn-of-the-twentieth-century first editions, trying to ascertain if the stars in our galaxy are the full extent of the universe. And to my right were the latest dispatches from Stephen Hawking or Alan Guth, about the billions of other galaxies stretching across space and back in time to the Big Bang. See what I mean? No: Hear what I mean? All of history, all those voices, all at once.
Still, there's noise, and then there's noise. I didn't realize how good I had it until I started my research toward writing a book involving Freud. All I can say is, don't go into the 100s without earplugs.