Writer’s Life: A Three-Hour Tour, A Three-Hour Tour

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Sep 29, 2010 in Writer's Life |

I got to tag along with Space Squid Editors Matthew, David, and Elle on their field trip to visit the Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection at the Cushing Library, located at Texas A&M University. The Collection is the 4th largest in the US, and is made of twelve different kinds of awesome. We got an in-depth, behind the scenes tour which lasted a little over three hours, and encompassed pretty much the entirety of the history of Science Fiction, or at least enough to sufficiently blow my mind.

The Stacks

First stop on our tour is the Stacks, a large temperature controlled, humidity controlled room with its own weather system. They keep it breezy in there to keep dust from settling on the books. My best guess, there were about twenty forty-foot motorized shelves jam-packed with SFF books, magazines, and manuscripts. One of my irrational fears is getting crushed between moving bookshelves, which I must have repressed until actually presented with the opportunity. It didn’t help that our wonderful, witty, and brilliant tour guide Cait told us about the hazardous working conditions of catalogers, and though there are motion sensors, they do sometimes fail.

We checked out some of the pulp magazines from the 1920s and learned that they were printed on the pulpiest of pulp and are now degrading so quickly that bits of sloughed pages have to be vacuumed up a couple times a month. Not even the environmentally controlled room can stop this bit of history from dying a slow death. They’re not expected to last another century, but the good news is we’ll probably all have computers in our brains by then, so you win some, you lose some.

The names of my favorite authors kept leaping out at me, and I felt like a starstruck groupie snapping photos on a backstage tour. Many books were presented in different editions, each with their own personality and beautiful cover art. We got to see signed Ray Bradburys, and though I think we were allowed to touch the books, it felt too intrusive to remove the books from their homes.  Cait’s stories were entertaining, and we got to hear the dirt and gossip surrounding our most beloved authors.

The Exhibit

While the Stacks were amazing, it was really cool to see the care with which some of the jewels of the collection were presented. The exhibit consisted of several glass displays highlighting both local authors and masters of the genre — not mutually exclusive, of course. There were also some rarities, like the first illustrations of Frankenstein’s monster, and a first edition of Harry Potter, which had a print run of 500. There were also timelines chronicling the progression of Science Fiction through the ages and the cultural and technological developments happening concurrently.

The Printing Press

Seeing a replica printing press in action gave me a real appreciation for my word processor. It takes six hours to set the type for two pages, during which your eyes go crossed from trying to sort the teeny letters. The ps and qs look so similar (not to mention the bs and ds), and it’s easy to forget that they’re reverse images, which is where the saying “Mind your ps and qs” comes from. Also, the metal letter pieces are grouped in containers called sorts, and when you run out of a letter, you’re “Out of sorts.”

The printing press itself is a replica, but it still takes a bit of might to operate the thing. Press workers used to pull 12-hour shifts, and although this looks like a great workout, I think I’ll stick to my computer and cheap laser printer.

Saving the Best for Last

Towards the end of the tour, I was scouting for places to pitch a tent and lay out a sleeping bag so that I could stay forever. Three hours wasn’t enough time to see even a fraction of the collection, much less sit down with the books so I could really appreciate them while curled up in a comfy chair. Though Cait certainly didn’t seem to mind giving up so much of her day to entertain and enlighten us, we were sure starting to drag, our once thoughtful and awe-inspired questions about the exhibit reduced to mumbling, crude jokes, and weak puns. And yet there was still more to see, so we pressed on.

The rare books were among my favorite, and it doesn’t get much rarer than this teeny stone tablet — a tax receipt from 2000 B.C. for the exchange of livestock.

These old books look more like artwork, especially taken in together. Huge tomes filled the shelves, boasting beautiful spines, stark contrast to the pulps we saw deteriorating before our eyes. These books were meant to stand the test of time.

The stories behind the objects are sometime just as impressive as the objects themselves. It’s interesting to learn of all the methods for acquiring pieces for the collection, especially on a budget, and hearing about the disputes, frustrations, and red tape that curators have to deal with. We got to see a portrait of Andre Norton, which unfortunately was damaged due to cats urinating on it while it was stored in a garage before the library got its hands on it. (See those black stains on the bottom part of the frame?)

Last, but not least, we saw a second edition of Dracula from 1899. The first edition from two years prior was already checked out, but we hear that this one has better cover art anyway.

Our brains buzzing and our stomachs rumbling, we left the Cushing Library in a daze. After some brief snerking as we passed the Animal Hvsbandry building, we set off on the second part of our journey to the town of Snook in search of its fabled chicken fried bacon. I could tell you about their menu consisting of nothing but fried entrees, or of how I’m pretty sure my salad was smothered in straight up mayo instead of honey mustard dressing, or the grease coma I went into soon afterward, but this post is already way too long, and besides, what happens in Snook, stays in Snook.


Rebecca Schwarz
Sep 29, 2010 at 10:41 am

So cool! I’ll have to check that collection out one day (you know, I’m an ex-librarian)!

Nicky Drayden
Sep 29, 2010 at 11:25 am

You should! It’s totally cool, and I already want to go back.

Cait Coker
Oct 1, 2010 at 10:04 am

This is an awesome round-up! You guys were so much fun to show around, too. 😀 I did a re-blogging of your and Matthew’s posts on the Cushing scifi blog, which is emerging from its stasis. Cheers all the way around!!!!!!

Nicky Drayden
Oct 9, 2010 at 11:40 pm

Thanks for the blog post! We had a great time.



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