My Libraries: Week #48 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On Dewey Decimal and marbled endpapers and ghosts in the stacks
DEAR READER: I hope I’m not trespassing on your patience with two nostalgia-laden posts in a row. This is a companion piece to “Why Johnny Can’t Read Now,” and I’m envisioning at some point combining the two. I promise less wallowing next time!
The first thing you noticed when you entered the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library at the University of Pennsylvania was the gigantic card catalogue. It took up its own section—no, its own room—on the ground floor to the left of the curved circulation desk. I have no idea how big it was—perhaps hundreds of cabinets, thousands of drawers, millions of cards. I know that the library used to boast that it had the greatest number of open-stack volumes in the world, somewhere in the millions. Harvard and Yale might have more books, but those snooty assholes wouldn’t let the public get their grubby paws on them. The university of Ben Franklin, on the other hand—the dude who invented the free public library (another thing that folks in Philly like to brag about that may or may not be true)—would of course want the world to come in and read the books. Learn the trade. Better yourself through reading. What an antiquated and lovely concept.
I don’t know if all those books are still there. A thing that libraries have liked to do in the past decade or so is get rid of their books—so bulky, so inconvenient, so smelly—but I know for a fact that the card catalogue no longer exists because an ad in my alumni magazine tried to sell me drawers from that catalogue a while ago, as they were dismantling it and putting all the records into their electronic system. I should have bought one.
I suppose I could find out what’s been happening to the physical library books at Penn by looking on the internet. That is what one does now. But before that became the way to find things out, one had to find things out either by going to a library or (the pre-21st century version of Googling) calling the library reference desk and asking someone to look up the information for you. That was my job for four years in grad school, in the library at Northwestern. It was the dreamiest, sweetest job in the history of wage labor. Every week I would get one shift at the information desk, which meant answering the telephone and taking questions from the public: What is the population of Botswana? Who was MVP of the 1963 World Series? I would push the chunky plastic hold button, place the phone receiver back in its cradle, and turn to the sea of books behind me, wondering where to begin. At first the stacks would seem an impenetrable blank—like a forbidding wall of stern deacons with their lips pressed tight and scowls on their faces. Then a little finger of memory would tickle the edges of my brain; I would remember a book I had used before, or something I had learned in my training would come back to me, or I would look through the sheets and sheets of reference books listed in the “cheat” folder behind the desk, and the sea would part, that one deacon would catch my eye and wink, and I’d dive in.
The library at Northwestern used the Dewey Decimal system. It was perversely proud of the fact that it was—again, probably remains, and again I could find out on the internet—the only major research library in the world using Dewey Decimal. The story was that back in the day (the 50s? the 60s? before? I could look it up on the internet), when the Library of Congress system was being launched, Northwestern fatefully decided to stick with Dewey, and by the time it became clear that every research library in the entire world was going to be on this other system, it was too late. It had become impossible—too expensive, too time-consuming—to make the switch. So I, and everyone else who went to graduate school at Northwestern, now speak Library of Congress only as a second language. This used to mean something. There was a decade or so after grad school when it was a funny dinner-party joke that I didn’t know the LOC call number for my research area (I think it’s PN maybe, or PQ? somewhere in that general range), but boy did I know 823.8. 823.8 was my home. My people.
Northwestern’s main library (which, incredibly, had no name—no robber-baron dumped his blood money on it back in the Roaring 20s) consisted of three brutalist towers with books arranged in circular shelves around their perimeters. Every single day, when I got off the elevator on the fourth floor, I would walk down the hall to the entrance to the East tower (home of 823.8) and before turning left I would stop at the slit of a window at the end of the hall (for some reason library architecture of the 1960s favored prison aesthetics) and I would press my forehead against the glass and stare out at the blank expanse of Lake Michigan. The lake was often frozen. Does it freeze any more? It’s possible that that is no longer a thing that happens. I guess I could look it up on the internet.
I was depressed, and I even knew that at the time. I was in grad school, I was poor, I was working very hard for an obscure reward, I was kind of lonely even though I had friends, things felt difficult. I savored my mild depression, almost enjoyed it in a perverse kind of way. (Now that I have experienced what severe depression is like, both in myself and in others, I can look back on this time with nostalgic fondness). There was a slow rhythm to my day: walk to the el; shiver under the tiny platform heater (which I always referred to as a “French-fry light”) while waiting for the train; sit on the train and stare out the window daydreaming; change trains at Howard; get on the cleaner, nicer train for the short jaunt to Evanston; walk east on Foster Street from the station to the library; pause on the fourth floor to press my face against the window glass; turn left into the East tower; find my spot; open my books; spend the day wrestling with theory; eat my lunch in the tiny “snack bar” on the second floor where, incredibly, you could also enjoy a cigarette; read whatever Dickens novel I was in the middle of over my tuna sandwich. This routine was a deep comfort, even from the depths of my slight and ubiquitous sadness. Standing in front of that window and staring down at the frigid water was like poking at a sore tooth with my tongue. Yes, the pain is still there, just checking. Everything is in place, and all is right with the world.
Once I turned away from the window and entered the womb of 4 East, I would often take a slight detour on the way to my carrel through the 823.8 stacks. This is where criticism on the nineteenth-century British novel lives, and also the novels themselves. The Victorians published a ton of crap, the vast majority of which no one reads or teaches any more (heck, we barely read or teach Jane Eyre any more), and the only way to find old and forgotten stuff is to go to a library that has held on to it, find your call number (you LOC types—I think it’s PN? or PQ? or something like that) and get lost. I would find long-forgotten novels by amateur housewife scribblers, usually “society” romances, their pages still uncut. (The first time this happened, I took the volume in trembling hands down to Special Collections and asked what I should do. The librarian glanced at the third-rate novel from 1892, took in the embossed cover and marbled end papers, shrugged, and in a bored voice told me to cut the pages as I read, just be careful.)
Sometimes, when I couldn’t bear the cloistered air of 4 East any more, I would take the elevator back to the first floor and walk down the long corridor to the original neo-Gothic wing of the library where the huge vaulted-ceiling reading room was. This was Art History world—all their volumes were kept in this space (I’m sorry I don’t remember your call number) and the lucky grad students in this discipline got reading spots at one of the long tables under the stained-glass windows and looming statuary.
Right outside that room, in the stone-floored Gothic lobby, there was a wooden phone booth with a door. When you closed the door and sealed yourself inside, a light came on, warming the old wood around you. Once a day, during the periods in grad school when I was dating someone, I would make the long walk down the long hallway from 4 East to that phone booth, call my honey, and have a conversation about whatever drama was going on at the time. Sometimes we would just make a plan to see each other later, but often there was some transgression or petty slight or jealousy to process. Occasionally I would be closed inside that confessional for what felt like hours, until I had little circular impressions from the mouthpiece of the receiver pressed into the side of my chin. This was our time to talk. There was no way to reach anyone, or be reached, throughout the long day. People in offices had their own phones, and I guess you could call them at work, although I think I have learned from sitcoms that this was frowned upon.
My last library, where I spent 13 years as an assistant and then associate professor of English, was at the University of British Columbia. Another monumental Brutalist-inspired building, but soaring and symmetrical and made partly of glass, almost with a neo-Classical air about it. You would recognize it—lots of scenes from movies and TV shows, particularly science fiction, have been filmed there. I can’t remember what they are now. You could look them up on the internet.
When I arrived in Vancouver in 2006, there were still no smart phones, although most people did have a flip cell phone. No more need to seek out a public phone booth to communicate with other people during the day. If you brought your laptop into the library, you could even email them. Stepping into the stacks, into a carrel, was no longer like setting foot on a transatlantic steamer in 1920, where you knew you could not communicate with the outside world except at great trouble, and infrequently. The stacks were no longer a sealed vault. I no longer felt vaguely sad, in a tender and familiar way, when I stepped into that charmed space. There were things to distract you from yourself. There were no good phone games yet, but you could email a friend, or look something up on the internet.
This was not that long ago. I am not old, even though I talk like an old person, full of nostalgia and regret. Maybe everything is being sped up now, even the process of grasping, clinging, and then letting go of the objects and scenes of one’s youth. Even people in their 40s and 50s are ancient and out of touch. (Smart phones didn’t come on the scene until 2010, so if you were 20 years old in 2010 you grew up without them; that would make you only 32 now. The internet didn’t make its way into every American household till the late 90s, so if you were born in 1980 then you grew up without it; you are now 42. Most college students didn’t have a computer on campus until 1990 or so at the earliest, so if you were born in 1970 then you made it at least partway through college—or all the way, if your parents didn’t have money—using a typewriter. You are now only 52 years old.)
But the die was cast. I spent my first five or so years at UBC doing things as I had always done them: checking out hundreds of books (literally) at a time, racking up thousands of dollars in overdue fines every year when I forgot to renew them in time, going to the circulation desk and begging for mercy and pointing out that no one wanted these books but me. In a university with 9,000 faculty and 60,000 undergraduates, I would get maybe one or two recalls a year on one of my 487 checked-out books. But gradually I started reading more stuff on my laptop, the library stopped acquiring new scholarship in paper form, I forgot to bug them about it. One year I went away on sabbatical, returned all my books before I left, and then never checked them out again. I stopped going over to the library as often, stopped trolling through PQ or PN or whatever it was, stopped coming across weird stuff I would never have known about otherwise.
A couple of times one of the librarians came to talk to the English Department about the upcoming plan to move a huge number of physical books to a storage site off-campus; you would still be able to access them, but you’d have to fill out a request form (on line, of course), and wait about a day for delivery. One of the reasons UBC was making this shift was that the administration wanted to take over the top floor of the library—with its breathtaking views of mountains, the Georgia Strait, and the UBC Rose Garden—for staff offices. They were gradually working their way down from the top, like a child nibbling away at a Fudgsicle, moving books off-site floor by floor so that they could take over the spaces with the views. I guess books don’t need a view, nor do the tens of people who lose themselves in the stacks every day. No more pressing your forehead against the glass, communing with the distant horizon for a moment, before turning back inside to the warm vault of the stacks.
Both times the librarian visited we expressed our outrage, as a body.The Victorianists rhapsodized about the uncut volumes. The Shakespeare scholars spoke about the serendipity of coming across unexpected items in the stacks. We all grew nostalgic and misty over the libraries that had saved our nerdy lives. The librarian clucked sympathetically and then asked how many of us had checked out a book from the library recently, as we stared down at our shoes. There was no point in lying. There were records of these things. They could look it up on the internet.
And now here I am, at my most recent, and probably last, institution. I have not developed an intimate relationship with the J. D. WilliamsLibrary at the University of Mississippi, for many understandable reasons. When I arrived in 2019, I was already in thrall to the e-book. I quickly learned that the library here doesn't have a ton of things that I would have found at UBC, or Northwestern, or Penn. (Like, literally, millions of things. One colleague has noted that even though the University of Mississippi is a Research One institution, we have the equivalent of a good local public library. For reasons that are probably obvious, there has never been much appetite among upper administration to correct that situation by buying a ton of books, or even subscribing to a ton more electronic databases, despite the best efforts of our librarians.) I was here for only a semester before the pandemic arrived, when my new habit of not going to the library and not checking out physical books was firmly cemented through long pajamaed days of Zoom teaching, desultory walks, and sourdough baking. So many things have shifted that do not seem to be shifting back.
Except for me, just recently. For a complicated series of reasons (with which I will doubtless regale the Doctor Waffle readership soon) I’ve had to drastically curtail screen time in the past few months, so I’ve returned to the world of the paper book. The library and I have gone out on a couple of dates, and I think things are going pretty well. In the past week I’ve gone inside a few times (other than to get coffee at the Starbucks on the second floor), checked out some books, put some stuff on reserve for an upcoming class. There’s some potential there. It’s a library, however much smaller than the ones I’m used to, so there are some promising nooks and crannies. The stacks are arranged in a pleasantly psychotic manner so one is always getting lost, which is as it should be. A couple of times, after turning the corner the 11th time to find PN or PQ or whatever, I’ve come across folks (usually a bit older-seeming, but not always), curled up in a chair in front of a window behind a tall shelf. They look startled to see me. They were lost in a book, dreaming drowsily away in the mote-filled air, expecting solitude. They’ve been there for a while, maybe for decades, and didn’t expect to see anyone else. Maybe they’re a bit sad and that Dickens novel is helping. Maybe they’re ghosts. I’m happy to see them.
I have been looking for you inside a book.
I grab its slippery dustcovered edges and tip it upside down,
shaking. Flapflapflap can you come out?
Running my fingers over its pages I hope your electricity will jump
the infinitesimal space between ink molecules and skin molecules.
Did it work? Are you circulating inside me yet. How can I tell.
I snuff up the smell of it, my snout in its tight binding
(and someone looking at me funny in the stacks).
Surely I can risk a small taste,
just a corner from a page toward the back
that is blank anyhow and no one will miss it.
I hold the small triangle on my tongue and wait for it to dissolve
but it never does. Pahpahpah.
Ohmygod what will it take to get you inside me
where I am sure you must belong.
I cannot continue on my own any more, unbattened
as I am, unstarched, without spine or leaves or jacket or blurb.
Some sun is trickling in through a grimy window in subject heading BD.
I dip my head against its insult and hook my finger in the next volume on the shelf:
it slides neatly down in the gap between headcap and textblock, and I pull.
(These books are old and this is a slight violence, but I believe I have made it clear that I’m fairly
The sun is getting stronger now, ranging unmercifully on the battered spines and flaking
goldstamped letters of the ledge I am working my way down.
Can’t you see I am busy here, sun.
To be clear, the librarian was outraged too. She was just the messenger. But she got it. She got it.
No idea who this dude is, but it’s probably not good. I am not going to look it up on the internet.
After I returned home from my campus visit, a full day after regaling Scott with the stories and waxing rhapsodic about how much I liked it here, it occurred to me that my visit had not included a trip to the library, nor had anyone mentioned the library, nor had I thought to ask. This would have been unthinkable for a job visit for an English professor candidate a decade earlier.
Mr. Waffle, who has always used the UM library more than me, reports that he sees a lot more undergrads studying inside than there were at UBC. It’s unclear whether they’re using the books, of course, but at least they’re inhaling their aroma, along with the Starbucks.
The astute reader will note that I wrote this poem as an undergraduate, when I was still subject to the Library of Congress classification system at Penn.