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The NYPL’s Collection of Weird Objects

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 07, 2022

The New York Public Library maintains a collection of literary paraphernalia (which they call “realia”) that has gathered almost by accident and includes items like a lock of Walt Whitman’s hair, the death mask of E.E. Cummings, and Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly drawings. The collection is only available by appointment, but the New Yorker snuck in for a look.

On the third floor of the New York Public Library, off of a quiet, marble-tiled hallway, is the Berg Reading Room. Mary Catherine Kinniburgh is one of the literary-manuscript specialists in charge of the cache of artifacts, which includes a lock of Walt Whitman’s hair, Jack Kerouac’s boots, and Virginia Woolf’s walking cane-all guarded by a buzzer and a strict protocol for appointment-only visits. “You can’t help but be a person in space and time in history, particularly in this room. It’s an opportunity to encounter an object in a very physical way, to generate meaning that transcends the shape of time,” Kinniburgh said.