This post is written by SCRC Research Travel Grant Recipient, Dr. Pauls Toutonghi.
I was late, to begin with. I hadn’t written about my time at the Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Center, within The Chapin-Horowitz Dog Book Collection. I kept promising myself—and others—that I would do it. The work was imminent. Forthcoming, shortly. About to arrive.
Part of the problem was the size of my project: I’d been putting together a manuscript about the relationship between humans and their dogs—as reflected in art and writing throughout the whole of human history. The book would range from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Mahabharata, covering several millennia. A big project. A slightly too-large scope, perhaps?
But then—the most significant pandemic of the last hundred years hit our globe. Suddenly, I was ensnared in the preparations to bring the institution where I teach—Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Oregon—online. What would we do? How would we do it? How could we remain sustainable for not only Spring 2020, but also the 2020-21 academic year?
Now I find myself looking at the calendar and wondering: Have two years actually passed since my time at Swem? And, yes, yes, indeed they have.
The pandemic not only reorganized our immediate academic culture, it altered my sense of myself as a writer and an educator. This global crisis, along with the racial justice protests of the Summer of 2020, made many of us rethink our priorities as creative individuals. What projects had the most merit? What were the most urgent questions that we, as writers, could address? I found that my students were—in the virtual classroom—exhibiting with a renewed sense of purpose and urgency.
So, my book project has remained on the sidelines. Not that it isn’t important. It’s just waiting, patiently, for the time being.
I look back to the week I spent researching in Swem as peaceful and idyllic days. Staying nearby, at a small hotel, I drove through the cold each morning, and entered the beautiful grounds of the library. There, I encountered the kind and helpful library staff, professionals like Meghan Bryant—the Frances Lightfoot Robb Public Services and Instruction Archivist—who helped me with my work. And affable Jay Gaidmore—the Marian and Alan McLeod Director of Special Collections—who marveled at some of the arcana that I’d discovered.
The Chapin-Horowitz Dog Book Collection is a remarkable collection; it’s really unequaled in the United States. I was—and remain—particularly moved by ephemera related to dogs, which are often preserved for centuries, as a testament to the closeness, the deep humane connection, between dogs and their people.