Monday, May 21, 2012

Writing Spaces: Library Love

I love libraries. I mean really, who doesn't? Free books, often housed in lovely, historical buildings. Wonderful nooks and crannies to explore. And some of the best writing spaces in the world.

Today's Writing Spaces post was inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer, who, when asked what his office looked like, sent in a picture of the New York Public Library's beautiful Rose Reading Room. As you might expect, the biggest library in the biggest city in the country has a pretty spectacular reading room.

When I was a lonely intern, exploring New York for the first time on my own, I used to sit in the reading room. It was always cool and quiet, and I loved the variety of people who visited the room: kids with colorful picture books, students surrounded by piles of papers, researchers, writers, or folks just looking for a quiet, comfortable place to read.

Right now, my main library reading room is the Harper Memorial Library at the University of Chicago. It gives me that "I'm still a student" feeling, which helps me steer clear of catching up on Degrassi when I really should be working.

When I actually was a student, though, I was lucky to be in the land of libraries, aka Harvard University. It is a library-lover's dreamworld, with more than 70 libraries on campus. Some are huge and historic, like the main university library, Widener, while others are hidden away in the residential houses or corners of buildings.

My dorm had an old library that had been converted suite of rooms for students (called, aptly enough, the library suite), although the only thing library-like about it was the bookshelves that paneled the common room walls and that you'd occasionally stumble across someone passed out in the corner (it was a big party space).

I loved stumbling across hidden alcoves or tucked-away desks, and the sheer magnitude of libraries meant that there was a pretty good chance no one else would discover you. Out of all the things I miss from college, access to the libraries is pretty high on the list, and even just thinking about them today is getting me all nostalgic. Here, then, some of my favorite library spots.

This is Lamont, the undergrad library and the spot to be during finals period. While I was a student, they converted a portion of Lamont into a cafe/reading room, thereby ensuring that, other than the occasional shower, it was possible to actually live comfortably in Lamont for a period of several days. This was also my favorite place to catch a midday nap.

The Widener reading room. Just looking at this gives me stress hives. Widener is used by undergrads and grad students alike, and the noise is at "preemie baby incubator room" levels. Heaven help you if you left your cell phone on or wore squeaky shoes. It is just as beautiful in person as it is in this picture.

They also renovated Widener (which was a surprisingly difficult thing to do, thanks to an absurd line in the original bequeathing of the library*) and built these hidden inner reading rooms. This one was pretty easy to get to; the other involved a series of staircases and doors and passages out of a Harry Potter book, and finding it was a badge of honor (I managed to find it, once, and then, like Narnia, never could quite get there again...). 

I know this little desk doesn't look like much, and yet it represents the greatest possible achievement a student could manage: earning a carrel at Widener. The carrels lined the walls of the stacks and some of them even had windows. I got a carrel my senior year, after applying during the summer and filling out a packet of paperwork. I spent many hours there poring over books and pulling out my hair over my thesis. It was awesome.

*Campus legend time! Widener Library, the building and books, was donated in honor of Harry Elkins Widener, who died on the Titanic. His mother, who gave the money, had the library built on top of a smaller library and to prevent some future rich donor from doing the same to Widener in the future, she stipulated that the library exterior could never be altered or else the ownership of the building will pass to the city of Cambridge. That means all renovations have to be done without any changes to the structure of the library, so: through windows, underground, within inner courtyards.

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