My University’s Library

The University Library is not really a place I happily frequent. I think people naturally divide into two camps: those who prefer to work at home and those who prefer library spaces. I’m steadfastly in the former because I like to eat while I’m thinking, and lie down if I’m doing some very hard thinking, and resort to doing the washing up if I’ve ground to a halt in my thinking. But the library cannot be avoided when it’s a question of research work; on the positive side, it’s a very good resource, with over five and a half million books inside it. On the negative side those volumes are picked over every day by academic vultures, with the result that, by definition, the good books have already been taken out by someone else. It’s also a disquieting space that I don’t find conducive to comfortable working. The outside is far from attractive; the library was designed by the architect Giles Gilbert Scott who, so they tell me, was famous for his power stations, and a glance at the exterior could clearly confirm this. It’s a brick monstrosity with a certain je ne sais quoi of incarceration, two large flat fronted wings, and a 48 metre high tower in the middle, at the top of which legend suggests the dirty books are held. Apparently it has an uncanny resemblance to The Ministry of Love in Orwell’s 1984. However, the inside never seems to correspond to the outside, for me, as corridors stretch off in all directions and eventually the weary traveller comes across an inner courtyard. Librarians pop out of doors that hide unimaginable spaces, and book trolleys can be heard grinding their way up service lifts from the bowels of the building. Most people have their own little circuits that they trot round, visiting the book stacks for their own subject areas and the two main public gathering spaces, the reading room and the tea room (this latter providing the venue for what passes for gossip and intrigue in the groves of academe). The library certainly contains vast tracts of book storage space, rare manuscripts, administrative areas etc, that I have never set foot in. All I know about labyrinths is that minotaurs live there, so I’ll stay clear of those shadowy regions, thank you very much.

The books I need to consult are split into two categories; more recent publications that are in paperback format and which have to be ordered from the reading room, and hardback books that are available off the book stacks. In the case of the former you have to fill in a little form and check an old-fashioned notice stand that tells you how long you will have to wait for them to be fetched. Where do these books come from? I have no idea. They lurk in the mysterious hidden zones of the library where only those with special access passes may enter. In the meantime you can hang around the reading room which is large, vault-like and lined with the kind of tomes that even I, who sprints to the bookshelves of friends to see what they’ve got, would never dream of bothering to look at. It is filled in orderly fashion with heavy oak desks that seat 6-8 people with a reading lamp suspended in the middle. For years I never knew how you managed to turn them on, and sat peering at volumes in the gathering dusk, wondering what miracle one had to perform to allow there to be light. This is not a place you want to linger in over the examination period when you can cut the air into thick slices of panic. Generally I wander off to check out the book stacks.

Now the idea is that you look books up on the state-of-the-art library catalogue at the banks of computers in an adjoining room. I have my suspicions that the new cataloguing system is simply a way for librarians to have a good laugh at us impractical, technology-unfriendly academics as many a time I’ve searched for research books that I know are in there somewhere, only to be told they have either vanished without trace or never existed. So I’ve found it better to browse, which is possible once you have got your head around the way the books are organised, which is by size (oh yes) and then by subject area and then by chronology. The book stacks are long, claustrophobic, dingy rooms with tiny desks at narrow windows with bars on one side, and lengthy floor to ceiling shelving units stretching down the other. There are lights on timers that click away like death watch beetles while you search, and then abruptly plunge you into darkness. I find the book stacks incredibly spooky, particularly up on the sixth floor, somewhere around the theoretical anthropology/ philosophy sections where people hardly ever go. A couple of years ago when I was still writing fiction, I began a thriller in which the murders all took place up in these book stacks. Anything could happen up there and it might be days before a body was found. Such thoughts often cross my mind as I scrabble about on hands and knees peering at the bottom shelf (where the books I want inevitably are) as the lights suddenly go out. It’s a relief to get out of there and back to the main corridors which are always busy with people.

Apparently there is an unofficial paper trail game being played out in secret amongst the library users. A cryptic clue tucked inside a book leads to another book, inside which is another clue and so on. It’s said that those who reach the end are honour-bound to provide another clue, but I’ve never even come across one yet myself. And the other little fact that pleases me about the library is that its biggest donation came from one Lord Acton, Catholic Historian and Professor of Modern History 1885-1902. On his death he bequeathed his research library, which consisted of a cool 60,000 volumes. For all those litbloggers out there who worry about the size of their book collections, never fear; this might put them in perspective.

It’s not all libraries I dislike, however. My college library is lovely, with a blond wood and glass mezzanine level that seems wonderfully airy and is great for spying on everyone coming and going. Perhaps other bloggers have library spaces they particularly like or dislike?

11 thoughts on “My University’s Library

  1. Your university library actually sounds intriguingly fun to me, like a game or something that is part of a hero’s quest:) My city just built a brand new central library downtown and it is a gorgeous place. A sitting area and fireplace on every floor, lots of light and glass, computers everywhere and books, books, books! On the ground floor there is a coffee shop and a gift store where you can buy bookish gifts including T-shirts, notecards, and bookends. It’s a lovely place but I prefer to do my reading at home so don’t spend much time there.

  2. I can certainly imagine all kinds of gothic activities taking place inside it! Torture in the basement, quests and trysts in the book shelves, secret societies meeting up the top of the tower. I wouldn’t say no to fireplaces and a gift store, though!

  3. this is a very sore subject with me, since I left the Hillman library in Pittsburgh, which had every book you could possibly need, ever, to my current library, which, as far as I can tell, does a brisk business providing dvd’s, cd’s and computer access but very little in the way of reading material. I tried for a library card from the Detroit Library, which is beautiful and white and has books, but was told I can’t since I don’t live in the city. I miss so much the libraries of Pittsburgh, the multiple buildings, ranging from rickety old houses to glass and air buildings -I could study for hours in various nooks and crannies throughout the city.
    Now I tend to work from home quite a bit, with occasional time spent in coffee shops, particularly when I simply need to finish something and don’t want the distractions of laundry and mopping, etc.
    So I guess the answer to your question is I once had a favorite library (multiple favorite libraries actually) but right now I do not, but the memory of my home town library, all dancing dust motes in the sunlight and indulgent librarians, always makes me feel safe and warm!

  4. My favourite library was my college library, which had a study area in front of a wall of windows that gave a gorgeous view of the entire city and the ocean and islands beyond. If I really needed to study I had to sit somewhere else.

  5. I’m a work-at-home kind of person; I like to be as comfortable as possible, with my feet up, a drink near by, a place to take a quick nap if necessary. Spending hours in the library sounds appealing, but for me the reality isn’t. I love the idea of the paper trail game! The one reason to like going to libraries, though, is that I like librarians — I’ve made friends with the librarians at my current school, and I like an excuse to go say hi.

  6. Oh, huzzah! A mystery solved. I know which university you work in now. 😉 Spooky or not (and yes, it does look like something out of Orwell…although to be fair to ole’ Giles Scott he worked on Liverpool Anglican Cathedral as well as Battersea Power Station…liked towers evidently) the 5 1/2 million books would have me running straight to your stacks! I spend far too much of my time on buses back and forth to BL document supply at Wetherby, or on trains down to the BL itself. Grrrrr…

    My university library is extroadinarily ugly (witness the picture at the top of this page ) Built on a strange artificial mound (why?) and attached to the main campus by a disgrace of a concrete bridge, it’s as unattractive inside as out. Ugh. Fortunately I have my own office inside, replete with personal decor, and so manage to work there quite happily most of the time.

    My favourite though is York Minster library (outside = ; inside = I don’t get to work there as often as I might like, their holdings being limited to certain subjects and their frowning on you taking in external material.

    There is also a special place in my heart for St. Andrews University Library (bottom pic = ). No less a monstrosity than York’s (although happily hidden away from the nice street behind Georgian facades), it was my first experience of significant holdings and I fell in love with it. I spent 4 years going in and out of its doors every day; absorbing its practises and systems, becoming attached to my favourite desk, being able to find certain books by memory. Wonderful. 🙂

  7. I’m very jealous of all the lovely libraries. Victoria, I’m glad to know someone else has monstrosities they need to visit – and I should have guessed that you would be smart enough to figure out which library I was describing! It is nice to have it on the doorstep, because I am extremely lazy about doing things like going to the BL, and I get into all kinds of trouble with colleagues for never having visited the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. But the red tape puts me off and working on modern literature means there’s little advantage to visiting it. Lovely pictures, by the way!

  8. If only being a librarian simply meant that you spend all your time reading in libraries and I’d have chosen to do that in a second! Every military base on which my father was stationed had a library and they were all wonderful — small places, well used, and no limits on what you could check out. Later, I worked all through high school at the Pierce County Public library as a page, putting the books back on the shelves in our small branch library. These libraries were not grand places — but they seemed so full of books and I had so much freedom in them, that they have come to represent the essence of the library. When I got to college, the libraries were beautiful — cathedral-like, well-supplied, well-lit clubs. And although I thought I should love studying in them, I invariably fell asleep in front of the fireplace, in one of those leather chairs that just begged you to take a nap in them. I had the same experience as a graduate student and a law student. The libraries made me both anxious and sleepy — but never productive or happy. And now I think I know what happened — my earliest library experience, of those Carnegie libraries, the small town, small base, open-to-all, libraries, have been imprinted on me. I cannot work in grand spaces. I need the domestic spaces of my childhood, and then I am home free.

  9. Those are some massive libraries you have! Since I work in a library I tend not to spend much more time there outside of work–though I do hit the public library to pick up books on hold. The libraries here are fairly small in comparison. I have shared photos of the library where I work–ca. 1970–lovely concrete architecture complete with groovy artwork and orange carpeting (though it is slowly being replaced with something a bit more visually pleasing!). With the completion of our addition we are getting a “cafe”–how modern of us–welcome to the 21st century! Complete with cappucinos, espressos and pannini sandwiches. At this rate it will be all computers, electronic resources, and coffee–who needs books anymore! We do, however, have an extensive afghanistan collection! When the new afghan government was drafting their constitution, we actually faxed them documents from our collection! Even though it is not a lovely space–I love the idea of libraries!!!

  10. I’ve always wanted to write a ghost story that took place in a library. Your university library sounds like the perfect setting. Howerver, as a former librarian, I love absolutely every type of library, big and small, university and public. My little home town library is a converted old mansion, with a lovely reading room, and when I really, really need to work on a manuscript with no distractions, I take it there.
    Your description of librarians and the technology, I hate to say, has a bit of truth to it. However, I have to admit in fairness that it was always very annoying to have someone say to me when we searched the shelf and couldn’t find a book, “But the computer says it’s on the shelf,” as if the computer had some sort of magical power to know exactly where a book was at in minute. I always wanted to say, “Check the computer again. Maybe it will tell you Mrs. Jones just took that book to the Ladies room with her.”

  11. I still miss Harvard’s Widener Library. Not as a physical space. Certainly the exterior is very grand as are the bits of the interior that are above ground ( When I first saw it on an autumn day with students lounging all up and down the front steps, it seemed the very picture of an idealized academic life. But the stacks, most of which are housed on several sub-basement levels that have to be reached by dark labyrinthine corridors, are very spooky. I too imagined bodies being discovered in the stacks. What I miss is the collection. Never once in my years there did the library fail to come up with a book that I wanted, no matter how ancient or obscure, right down to local history pamphlets about tiny Scottish towns that must have been published in miniscule print runs.

    That said, my library needs are well taken care of in Toronto. The public library has an extensive collection and there are local branches everywhere. There are three within walking distance of my house. And if those branches don’t have what I’m looking for, I can order things online from anywhere in the system and they soon turn up on the hold shelf at the branch closest to me. I sometimes feel guilty about the amount of space I take up on that hold shelf, but I have never once had a librarian give me even a flicker of a disapproving look over my borrowing habits. My university library is very utilitarian but it covers most of my research needs, and there are reciprocal borrowing agreements between it and the libraries of the various other Toronto universities, so I can frequent those too if necessary.

    The library that I remember most fondly as a physical space though is my childhood library. I wrote a blog post about it a while ago which you can find here:

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