A new library to play in

As an out-of-work academic wandering the world, all I really want is a nice library to curl up and go to sleep in.  Think I’m speaking metaphorically? Nope.  I’ve fallen asleep in them all, from the Bodleian to Stockholm’s Royal Library to the Huntington in San Marino, LA. Once you’re asleep they’re all the same.  But enough of that: the rest of this post is dedicated to a minute examination of the merits of Northwestern Library for the waking scholar.  Non-library geeks, please look away now.

First, the basics.  It’s a normal, lending, working library open to undergraduates, with nothing much in the way of treasures and manuscripts. It’s built in a predictably displeasing concrete idiom and is showing signs of wear best exemplified by the fact that most of the coat hooks have fallen off.

Which brings me to the desks.  Northwestern scores poorly here.  Do you see in the photo how there is no shelf to conveniently store the books I am consulting above my desk? Instead, they must litter my writing area. Observe further that there is no light that I can control myself, and no power source within reach to plug a laptop into.  Furthermore, this desk is located on a major thoroughfare on the library floor, meaning that people walking around have to alter their path to avoid bumping into me as I sit reading and (worse) will have a good view of me if I fall asleep. And although you cannot see it, it is rather warm

Let us turn to a happier topic.  The provision of paper and pencils for noting down shelfmarks at the catalogue terminals is a very nice feature, as is the special cushioned book receptacle by the terminal.  (I hate libraries where it’s unclear what you’re supposed to do with your books once you’ve finished with them or, worse, where you’re supposed to just leave them on the desk so that no one knows for the rest of the day if you might be coming back.)  However, the catalogue itself is archaic – reminiscent of OLIS in Oxford circa 1993 – and you’re reduced to searching by author name and guessing at their dates of birth (though this can be entertaining).  Anyway, I look forward to the day when they introduce  those newfangled combined author title searches that we do here in the 21st century.  (You can do these on the website… just not in the actual physical library.)

When you want to borrow a book, it all gets a bit weird.  The procedure is to go and self-issue all your books at a terminal downstairs with a temperamental scanner that often leaves me in an incoherent swearing rage.  This prints out a slip for each book, which you insert in a pocket in the back of each book.  Then you proceed to the exit, whereupon an attendant takes each book, removes, examines and replaces each slip, and then hands you all of your books back round the other side of the security gate.  I assume it’s all meant to deter you from borrowing.

The library is arranged in three towers over five floors, and here we get the essential Umberto Eco reference.  Each tower is round and entered by a narrow corridor.  Once in there is no obvious means of orienting yourself other than by the Emergency Exit signs.  Going down stairs also seems to have been vaguely frowned upon by the designing architect: the stairs are sort of hidden, unheated, peeling and bare, and lead to more paranoid thoughts of Emergency Exits.  Happily, the library has not been burned to the ground by a zealous monk during my visits.  However – it does have a secret passage!!!!!!  True, there are a couple of paper signs, but they run out before the crucial turning, and before you know it you’ve rounded an unmarked corner and are embarking down a sloping corridor that seems to be leading out of the building… through the air… and lo, you are in the Deering Library, where everything is wooden and art-historical and lovely.  (Er… and it’s autumn.  OK. I admit it.  I nicked this picture from flickr.)

Also, it is possible to become entirely lost in the stacks.  Another plus.

Having been brought up to believe that libraries should be silent, it seems to me a bit weedy of Northwestern to go no further than designating ‘quiet zones’ where you should ‘limit cell phone use’.  And I can’t find much good to say about their café.  But it is the only library I’ve ever visited where they offer to lend you an umbrella for your walk home.


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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5 Responses to A new library to play in

  1. I can say a little something about the Bibliothèque Nationale de France:
    Pros: every book ever published in France, hard to ever leave once you’re there.
    Cons: the same, plus the food is very expensive.

    • I have been dying to go to the BNF ever since someone there accused M of having a forged passport (which he had to show to get a reader’s pass). Yeah, I guess actually not having all the books you think you need can be quite a time saver… Can’t believe I wrote this whole post without even mentioning the Northwestern collections. But they’re pretty good.

  2. Mike Jones says:

    As a fellow library geek, I loved this post.

    I too have fallen fast asleep in the Huntington, but the overly clement weather and quesadillas for lunch were entirely to blame.

    My fav library ever? Minster Library in York – always virtually deserted, baffling shelf-marks and preposterously tall shelves which lead to you happily browsing commentaries on obscure biblical apochrypha rather than just getting the book you wanted. Astonishing collection of anything theology-related, and a reading room policed by anglican nuns. *sigh*

    • Ooh yes, the Minster Library! I like the way you have to climb up a lot of precarious ladders, and half the books have never had their pages cut. And then you have to sign out books in a *ledger*!

      • Mike Jones says:

        OOh the ledger! I vaguely remember taking things back late deliberately so I could flip through it.
        AND they used to have a big calendar-book open by the desk telling you which saint’s day it was.

        Occasionally I fantasize about making a little den under one of the desks in the stacks and making a home there….

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