Secrets of the Archives

The Village Voice

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.

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