Some libraries I have known: Servetus goes to university
So if I was an active library user as a child, my “habit” took off when I started college.
When I moved to San Antonio for college, for some reason that I can’t remember now, I was really worried about the library situation. Probably just general anxiety about moving 1,500 mi away from home. So while she was there to drop me off, my mom went with me to the local branch of the San Antonio public library, which was a half-hour walk away from the campus where I was studying, so I could get a library card.
I had never seen a public library built like that one, in the Spanish style. It was completed in 1930 and has a lot of smaller rooms in it, just like a house. And it is located in a slightly famous park, although I did not know that at the time. My first encounters with this library were fairly brief and are caught up a bit in the haze of moving so far away and feeling like so many things were different all of a sudden. I ended up not spending much time there, because the only thing that they had that I couldn’t get on campus was romance novels, and while I read a lot of those when I was eighteen, I gradually read fewer and fewer of them as my bachelor’s degree wore on and I realized how much other stuff there was that I hadn’t read and wanted to — which only got worse when I got good enough at reading Spanish to start reading novels. But it was always a good option if I was sick and needed really light reading.
The library love of my life in those years became the building at right. The architectural history of the campus is interesting because it’s built on a rock quarry. All the buildings are made of a particular red brick shade that is supposed to remind visitors of Italy — which I said with a straight face when I was a campus tour guide, but since then I’ve been to Italy. It is pretty, though. And the campus format was heavily influenced by its donors — Elizabeth Huth Coates Maddux being the main sponsor and donor of the library, which she did with her husband’s oil money.
I really loved this building a lot, and not just because of this weirdly astonishing collage / mural in the entryway. It has four floors and you enter on the third. It was also really effectively air-conditioned, which was important to me in my first weeks in San Antonio, as I’d never encountered 100 degree temperatures as a part of normal life before, or such wild humidity. But the real reason was just how much was in that library — even then, hundreds of thousands of volumes. If you wanted to read the work of a particular author, they had not only his most significant works, but ALL of them, not just in translation, but also in the original. Almost everything I’ve read of Isabel Allende or Octavio Paz or Carlos Fuentes, I read in the library here. The linguist and I watched all of the Goethe Institut German lesson videos they had together as well in 1990, right after the Wall fell. If this interests you at all, it looks like some of those videos are posted here. They had the complete volumes of something that eventually became so important to me that I bought my own copies — the Weimar edition of Martin Luther’s works (1881 and following) as well as the English translation from the 1950s. I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor of the basement between the shelves, avoiding the heat and paging through those huge, slightly musty folios. And they had really cool reference works: I remember a semester with an intensive engagement with the Oxford Classical Dictionary, which we were required to use in an ancient history class. Or slide collections, which we used for art history.
Oddity I remember — the catalog was on a long microfilm band. There were eight or ten microfilm readers and you picked subject, author, or title to choose a reader. Then you could zip through it by pushing a button, but if the reader was at “A” and you wanted a book that began with “H,” you had to spool for a while. That was also the first library I used where you had to let your bags be searched when you left it.
But I truly did not know how much I loved that library until I studied in México. I apologize for not putting a picture here, but the library I used doesn’t seem to be there anymore — the Universidad de Guadalajara got a new library in 2001 and I don’t recognize any of the other pictures I can see. Well, I have a lot of pictures in my mind from that period, but not of the library. It’s the only time in my life when I remember not having a close and personal association with one. The experience I do remember, though, was being assigned to write an essay about the theories on the people who inhabited the settlement at Teotihuacan. (I’m amused to discover that there is still no consensus on this question.) The whole library had one book that discussed the topic — for tens of thousands of students. And trust, me this was not an obscure subject in Mexican history, it’s a question that a lot of historians had discussed even then. When I asked a librarian if there weren’t other resources, he shrugged. He suggested that I (a) ask my professor to borrow books from him; (b) ask fellow students if they had books; (c) buy the books I needed. That really shook me.
I did, in fact, buy a lot of books while living in México because it was hard to borrow them. But also because the Guadalajara bookstores were neat places — you picked out the books, then one person wrote a receipt, so you could have a nice long talk about them, and then you took the receipt to another desk where you paid, and then a third person brought you your books, all packed up.
When I returned to my own university and became reacquainted with air conditioning, I learned that the collection available to us — about 2400 of us plus professors — was roughly three times the size of that available to the students at the largest public university in Jalisco. A lot of things about studying in México shook my then conservative political convictions to their foundations, not just that — but this is a detail I will remember forever.