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|
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.|