Ada in the Rare Books Library


Ada strained to lift the canvas box containing the heavy folio from the shelf. She had been working as a page at the Folger for months now, retrieving books from the vault and delivering them to the old people upstairs, but she had never given them more than a passing glance. She had read about folios and quartos while studying for her badges, but all she really knew was that there were sometimes different versions of the plays she had read and that the books here had the same names. The folios were big and heavy and had a distinct smell she couldn’t quite place.

It was cold in the vault—inexplicably cold, Ada thought. She balanced the box on one hip to zip her sweater. As she did, she lost her balance, slipped off the stool, and dropped the large box on the floor. Ada’s pride hurt more than anything else, so she quickly dusted herself off, looked around, and opened the box. What she found inside was alarming: a thick wooden board that appeared to be the book’s cover seemed to have been detached. Some pages were loose, and others appeared to be attached only with threads. She stacked the pages neatly, placed the board on top, replaced the call slip, and closed the box before placing it on her cart.

When she got upstairs, the reader who had requested the book was waiting patiently by the desk. Trying to look calm, she slid out the call slip and handed him the box. He carried the box back to his desk, opened it carefully, and lifted the board. Caught, she thought. Instead, she was surprised to see him place the board on one of a pair of foam wedges. (She’d heard this setup called a “cradle,” but she wasn’t sure why.) He then removed what remained of the book and set it on the desk.

She tried to slip out unnoticed.

If she had stayed, she would have seen him pick up a magnifying glass and carefully pull back the leather on the book’s spine. And she would have been baffled.

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