Friday, May 20, 2011

My Library Story

For those of you who work in or near university libraries, the “stacks,” or the shelves holding a library’s book collection, are probably rather familiar. But for the uninitiated, they can still have a wonderful power. I remember when I was a new undergraduate at Cornell University in the 1980s. Painfully shy and overwhelmed by the whole college experience, I was hesitant to ask any questions about anything, for fear of being discovered as the admissions mistake I sincerely believed myself to be. The one thing I had going for me, an avid reader, was that the place seemed to be very book-oriented. I learned with amazement, for instance, that Cornell didn’t just have one library, but at least seven or eight, each attached to a different school across campus.

In my first week as a freshman, I managed enough gumption to enter Cornell’s main library for undergraduate students, Uris. It was quite impressive for someone who had only previously experienced the local public library. Built in 1891 in Romanesque style, the main door was appropriately intimidating, opening up into a main reference and circulation room. The “Dean Room,” as it was called, was a large sun-splashed basilica, with its center filled with tables and study carrels and its walls lined with books and paintings of Cornell’s forefathers and illustrious donors. It was much as I had imagined an Ivy League school’s library would look like; there was a reverent hush about the whole place, and people seemed to be seriously engaged in scholarship. In fact, I thought that this room was the library. It was about the same size as my entire town library back home and, while it didn’t have quite as many popular novels, it more than made up for that with its complete sets of encyclopedias and authoritative-looking reference guides to every possible subject in human history. I figured that was what college libraries were supposed to be all about.

Dean Room, ca. 1900. Div. of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell U. Library
One day, while sitting in the Dean Room, I noticed a door to the left of the circulation desk. Every once in a while a person would disappear through the door and not return. This seemed a little odd to me; at first, I figured it was some kind of shortcut for staff only. But I decided to investigate. Maybe it was an alternative exit? Or maybe it connected to a study room of some kind? This was not easy for me to do. Remember that I dreaded being found-out as an imposter; my survival depended on looking like I fit in and not getting into trouble. (“You there! Where do you think you’re going?!” a librarian might have barked as soon as I approached the door. “Everyone here knows that door is off limits!” Then, with her eyes squinted in suspicion: “Wait a minute, why don’t you know that?....” And so on).

When I took a deep breath and went through, I found that it led to a set of stairs, stairs that went down underground. Each floor had a landing and a door—B, 2B, etc.--one of which I finally decided to open, as nonchalantly as possible, of course. When I walked through the doorway, however, I suddenly found myself unable to breathe, for extending out before me were rows and rows of bookshelves. They seemed to reach infinitely beyond me into a vast dimly-lit space that seemed to have been carved deep into the earth. And all of them held books of every size and color. There were thousands of books—maybe hundreds of thousands. I was awestruck and somewhat baffled. I had never in my life seen so many volumes in one place before. Was I supposed to be here? What were these books doing, here, rather than upstairs in the library? Had I stumbled on some kind of secret warehouse under the campus?

Then another student came in. He politely walked past me, turned on one of the timer-lights at the end of a shelf a few yards away, and started to search for a book whose call number he had scribbled on a piece of scrap paper. It dawned on me that there was much to learn.

A couple of years later, I gained access to the even larger graduate library at Cornell, and, as a scholarly researcher, I’ve since been able to explore some of our nation’s finest archives, including the Library of Congress (the stacks are off-limits, there). But I will still never forget that first moment when I stumbled on the actual book collection of Uris Library and discovered that the world was much, much bigger than I had ever anticipated. Oddly, perhaps, I still have a love not only for books but for rows of books. When you see photos of college libraries, there are usually interior shots that attempt to convey the majesty of an aisle in the stacks, with two rows of books converging at a distant point. But that’s only one piece of what can usually be apprehended—typically, there can be ten, or even twenty, aisles, extending across the breadth of one’s vision. And in bigger university libraries that happens on multiple floors. Together, the stacks of any library represent a mindbogglingly large ocean of books—of human knowledge—in which an earnest student might spend a lifetime exploring. And sitting in the stacks, literally immersed in print, is a kind of heaven on earth for some of us.

Uris Library Stacks, Photo by Eflon.

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