She was going to a conference on biography at the University of Southern California, Sarah Churchwell said, and intended to make her first trip to the Huntington Library. Did I know it?
Yes, I muttered, I worked for 25 years half a mile down the deodar-arched road. When I first went there, you had to walk through the institute's fragrant orange groves to get to the reading room. After I secured a job at the California Institute of Technology (a post that elicited awe, until your interlocutor realised you were not a rocket scientist), I spent eight years virtually every working day (classroom "work" was not crushing at Caltech) on a labour of love, an encyclopedia of Victorian fiction. Yes, I knew the place.It is the most civilised library anywhere, set as it is in the finest dry gardens outside Mexico (cactus rustlers are a constant threat) and the best art gallery on the West Coast. One of my friends said that if she died and went to Heaven, she would expect St Peter to ask for her Huntington reader's card at the pearly gates.Churchwell is the scholarly equivalent of an electric storm. Ten minutes with her is a Christopher Walken hair-job. She has a book on The Great Gatsby coming out soon. Careless People will hot-cake off the Kindle e-shelf and the Amazon warehouse so fast that Little, Brown will be reprinting before Times Higher Education gets its review out.That book, she promises (I believe her), will contain lots of hitherto unpublished material. But whatever of that there was at the HEH (as it is known, after Henry E. Huntington, the railway magnate and philanthropist) she would already have in her efficiently plumped-out files - thanks to Professor Google, Dr Xerox and the email Hermes. Dropping by HEH, if she has time from the conference, will probably be like spending a relaxing afternoon at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or the La Brea Tar Pits.As we spoke, my mind wandered back to my first trip to the Huntington - when, metaphorically, dinosaurs roamed the Earth. In 1973, that is. By metaphor, I mean before research was digitally enhanced. If nowhere else, Lenin's instruction ("Electrify! Electrify! Electrify!") has been adopted by the academic professions. It was the universities that were first to adopt email as it span off from military agency the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (Arpanet), and Tim Berners-Lee's hypertext World Wide Web as it span off from Cern. That was all in the future in the early 1970s.