A lock of Walt Whitman’s hair, Jack Kerouac’s boots, and Virginia Woolf’s cane are just a few of the items available to inspect at the eclectic Berg Collection—if you have an appointment.
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.
The Berg Collection’s roughly two thousand linear feet of manuscripts and archival materials were donated to the library, in 1940, by two brothers, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg. The brothers, both doctors who lived on the Upper East Side, were avid collectors of English and American Literature—and of literary paraphernalia.
The library categorizes these items as “Realia”—objects from everyday life. The Berg Collection includes Charlotte Brontë’s writing desk, with a lock of her hair inside; trinkets belonging to Jack Kerouac, including his harmonicas, and a card upon which he wrote “BLOOD” in his own blood; typewriters belonging to S. J. Perelman and Paul Metcalf; Mark Twain’s pen and wire-rimmed glasses; Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly drawings, and the death masks of the poets James Merrill and E. E. Cummings.
Although the Berg Collection is intended to cater to researchers, curators are always keeping an eye out for items that complement the existing archive. Virginia Woolf’s cane may be of little interest to scholars, but it’s an important artifact that was likely the last thing she used before her death. The library has one of the world’s largest holdings of Woolf’s manuscripts. “Nowadays, because there is a lot more public interest in the objects that belonged to famous people, the general public is much more interested in objects that provide this different insight,” Declan Kiely, the library’s director of exhibitions, said.
Although the library has a strict procedure in place for public viewing of these items, in recent years the library has made it easier to make an appointment. “Of course, you have to be careful; if you just open the doors, you would have thousands of people coming in here just to see Dickens’s desk and chair,” Kiely said. He also pointed out that the library does intend to have an exhibition to present these and other treasures in the Gottesman Hall by 2020.
“It’s these kind of talismanic objects that lend themselves very much to a sort of direct access to the other world,” Kiely said. He likened being in the Berg vaults to a spiritual experience. “Mary Catherine and I have often talked about the way in which you can be here and feel not just a presence, but presences around you.”