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NY Public Library Study Room Presents Virginia Woolf Festival

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A free and open-to-the-public festival on Virginia Woolf begins Tuesday at the New York Public Library (N.Y.P.L.). The three-day event will feature one lecture per afternoon on various aspects of the English author, from her political views to an examination of the library’s newly acquired proof copy of her essay "A Room of One’s Own," which was first published in 1929.

The series is presented in part by the Wertheim Study, a private space tucked into a second floor corner of the N.Y.P.L.’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. The study is for scholars working on long-term projects that benefit from the use of the library’s materials, fittingly providing the writers with a room of their own—a room with a dedicated librarian, without Internet access, and where the rule for no talking is happily observed. (See WNYC's video of the room below.)

"This is the last place on earth where silence is respected," says Jay Barksdale, a librarian in the research division who also serves as the administrator of the Wertheim. "There’s a synergy here that happens when people are surrounded by others who are intensely working," he says. "It turns out there is a place for monasteries in the modern world after all—at least for a few hours a day."

The Wertheim Study was founded in 1963 by Barbara Tuchman, an author and scholar, in honor of her father, Maurice Wertheim, who published the magazine, The Nation. It serves as a space for individuals engaged in research in the fields of humanities and social sciences to work with the library’s collection on a long-term basis. Numbered bookshelves line the room’s walls, and scholars are allowed to hold their materials on assigned shelves for the duration of their assignments, which begin initially for three months.

Users include the author Vivian Gornick, food writer Judith Weinraub, and journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk, who used the room to research his recent series for Slate on the dynamics of creative pairs. Admission is by application and granted by Barksdale, who also oversees the adjacent Frederick Lewis Allen Room. Known as the Allen Room, it's reserved for authors with book contracts.

One reason for the Virginia Woolf festival is because two of the Wertheim’s current scholars are working on research projects on the author. Professor Jean Mills, who kicks off the festival Tuesday with her presentation "Goddesses and Ghosts: Virginia Woolf and Jane Ellen Harrison in Conversation," has lectured publicly on Woolf and Modernist studies. She is finishing a book on the subject of her lecture. Anne Fernald, an associate professor of English at Fordham University, will present on Thursday "On Traffic Lights and Full Stops: Editing Mrs. Dalloway." Dr. Fernald, who will discuss among other topics the differences between the American and British editions of the novel, is working on the Cambridge University Press edition of "Mrs. Dalloway."

Another reason for the festival is that the library has a new acquisition in its collection of Virginia Woolf papers, the largest collection in the world: a proof copy of "A Room of One’s Own" that was thought to have been lost to posterity. "The reappearance will set the stage for a renewal of scholarly interest in the work," says Isaac Gewirtz, the curator of the Berg Collection of English and American Literature, who collaborated with Barksdale on putting together this festival.

In his lecture on Wednesday, "When is a Printed Book as Good as a Manuscript?", Dr. Gewirtz will compare key passages of the proof copy to the first edition text, noting where the author simplified or expanded her language. "Seeing the version that preceded the text we know will significantly alter our understanding of the work and the way Woolf was approaching ideas in it," he says.

For more information about the Festival of Lectures on Virginia Woolf, visit the Programs page on the N.Y.P.L. Web site. Lectures begin at 4 P.M., Tues. through Thurs. this week, in the South Court Auditorium of the Schwarzman Building. They are free and open to the public.

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