Some libraries I have known: Graduate school in the U.S.
At this point in the narrative I’m twenty-two and while you are thinking, wow, too many libraries, this was the point at which my library life really started to take off!
Post-secondary libraries, 1991-1995
When I was deciding where to go to graduate school, the quality of the library was a major consideration, potentially more so than it might be now, with so much more available electronically. The general consensus is that the best graduate school in the U.S. for general history is Princeton (didn’t get in), but the institution with the best libraries is Harvard (did get in, didn’t go there). In general, you can say that the best library for the historian is the one that’s been collecting longest. But Harvard’s consistent #1 ranking is not only because their collection is the oldest, and not only because they’ve had fantastic donors or because the institution is rolling in cash, but because of their journal collection — they subscribe to a lot of journals where they are the only U.S. subscriber. Also, Harvard dissertations don’t circulate, so if you want to see a dissertation written there (or at least this used to be the case), you have to go there. If there was only copy of something in the U.S., it was mostly likely to be there, and indeed, I did spend a weekend once in Cambridge reading a German theological book from the 1920s that there was only one copy of in North America. (Waste of time, but part of writing a dissertation is being able to say: “I read that and there’s nothing new there.”) Obviously there are exceptions to the general principle that you want the university with the most books. or instance, in Washington, DC, one has access to the Library of Congress (38 million volumes to date, 838 miles of bookshelves; in comparison Harvard has about half as many). Or one may want access to a collection with particular strengths in one area (so the best library for Latin American history in the U.S. is the Benson at the University of Texas at Austin). But in any case, and in those days particularly, one wanted the biggest and best collections.
In the end, the library of the institution I chose (University of Wisconsin-Madison) did not have the biggest holdings — at the time, and since, it was in the mid-range of a group of institutions that were lurking around 8-9 million items. (To compare to the library at the University of Guadalajara — about fifteen times the size.) What it did have, however, were libraries that had good collections in my areas of interest and in particular, libraries that I especially liked.
I’d spent the summer before graduate school there, doing summer school, and gotten a fantastic job as a research assistant to a history professor — sort of trying to figure out if I’d want to go to history graduate school (I was a late bloomer in that regard, although that was more normal in those days). She was writing a book comparing the development of railways in Germany and the United States, and I got the job because I’d had three semesters of German at that point, enough to let me use a library catalog and do simple reading, and because I could read the typeface a lot of the books were published in with ease. The library had all the volumes of a specialist publication, Archiv für Eisenbahnwesen, that had been published in the nineteenth century by the German Imperial Railway under the auspices of the Prussian Imperial Ministry for Transportation, and I had to read all the way through asking questions about wooden vs. metal rails and railway gauge in various countries.
So before I went, I knew I would feel comfortable in those libraries and in that place, and it meant a lot to me to know that. I hadn’t realized till I got there, but when you’re an undergraduate you really care about different things — the variety of a campus, the number of different activities to be involved in, the diversity of course offerings, sports. When you’re a graduate student you go almost nowhere and do almost nothing but read. My first year of graduate school, I went to the library and went to classes, all in only one building — as an undergrad I’d studied mostly what took my fancy, while in grad school I took only history, political / social theory, and language courses. In my case, that phase lasted for three solid years while I prepared and wrote my M.A. thesis and then prepared for the doctoral exam (comprehensive exams, or preliminary exams). And then I spent the fourth year teaching, which also necessitated a lot of library trips.
Memorial was the first library I had to identify myself to enter (this happened because a student had been assaulted by a homeless man in the stacks in the late 1970s, so they began to restrict entry). It was the first time I used a rare books library (Trinity had one, but I never had a reason to use it), although I didn’t use it as its collection wasn’t relevant to my studies. I spent an amazing time in those years photocopying things, as well — again, before electronic journals. Those were years of big changes in the library world. First of all, the campus was trying to get bar codes onto all of its millions of volumes. Rather than doing it systematically, they’d bar code something when someone tried to check it out. So if you had a volume without a bar code, you got in a special line where they’d install a bar code and make a copy of the book’s title page and other information before you could take it away. This led to something called “unlinked records,” so every now and then you’d get an overdue notice for an unspecified book because the bar code showed the book as overdue but the cataloger hadn’t yet connected the book record with its bar code. So you’d have to go in just to figure out which book it was that they were recalling. They also gradually shifted the entire collection to computer catalog at that point. When I left Madison in 1995 for Germany, a complete search still required computer + card catalog, but when I returned in 1998 no one used the cards any longer and I think it was removed shortly after that.
It also had something else that made a lasting impact on me: movable shelving. The first time I ever had a full-blown anxiety attack, it involved my brain’s strange conviction that I was going to get trapped in the shelving. It had weight sensors, although there were signs everywhere saying, don’t let children who weigh less than twenty-five pounds onto the shelving. Anyway, at one bad point when I couldn’t find a book I needed, I thought the shelving was moving toward me and I couldn’t move and I almost fainted. That scared the heck out of me and I went to a psychologist for the first time because of it. In the end, the attack was about my worry about my upcoming doctoral exams, not about the shelving, but the therapist taught me some really valuable techniques for noticing and braking anxiety that I have used off and on ever since. I’ve only had a few more anxiety attacks I wasn’t able to stop — so that technique, it turns out, may have been one of the more valuable things I learned in graduate school.
But there was more to the libraries there — I used at least three other ones extensively. Probably the most well-known library is the State Historical Society Library (Madison is consistently rated in the top five places to study U.S. history at the graduate level and this library, ranked #2 nationally in U.S. history holdings, is part of the reason why). As you can see from the video, below, it also has the prettiest reading room, although I admit that neo-classical style is not my favorite.
Two more libraries on that campus were fairly important to me.
First, the only library I’ve ever worked in for money: the Geography Library. I worked in circulation, shelved books, and I typed book orders and bibliographical entries for books in German, French and Spanish. It was kind of a brutal job, insofar as it hurt to be sitting that close to books with interesting titles and not have any excuse to be reading them. I did check some out, but my own required reading more or less erased a lot of the out-of-field reading I’d done as an undergrad in those years. I read only my work reading and crime novels. That was it.
However, I did love the interior of that library — it was a really pleasant place to work, and the librarian was this kind of zany graduate of the geography department who had just hung on forever. The building was still mostly furnished with its original 1890s-era flooring, which was gorgeous although it creaked and creaked. The other job I had there was in the map library (a subsection of geography). I worked on a project where we ordered a free local map from every tourist bureau in the U.S. and then put them in a collection. I ordered the maps and then I wrote a finding aid for the collection. Another really tedious job but I needed the money. I wonder if they have kept it — it took up a lot of space and that sort of thing is all on-line these days.
The last library I used on that campus was the undergraduate library, which was housed in Helen C. White Hall. The entryway was this awful, brutalist architecture (there were a few buildings like this on campus, built in the 1960s, and there seems to be a mood to demolish them — can’t say I’m sad). But the building was right on the lake, so the views were awesome. Although because it was right on the wake, it was cold in the winter. All of these buildings were really convenient to the Wisconsin Memorial Union, though, so it was easy to find some food, coffee, or preferably beer to warm up with.
That library had a real reputation — it was listed on a lot of lists as one of the top ten libraries to find a quick hook-up. This may have had something to do with the fact that it was the only campus library that was open twenty-four hours at the time, or the fact that the Union was right there. I occasionally studied there for the view, but the main reason I went there was to put items on reading reserve for my students. And the secondary reason I went there was for a practical reason — there was a parking garage right in the building. The last semester I taught, the faculty member I was working with got into the bad habit of calling me at midnight to let me know he wasn’t going to meet his 8 a.m. class, and would I meet the class and give the lecture? Since it was a topic I knew nothing about and that was out of the range of my studies (Hellenistic Greece), I’d have to jump out of bed, get dressed, and go sit in this library and try to put a lecture together. That happened about six times. Nasty.
OK — and one more library from the U.S. graduate school years. The Physicist, whom I’d met in my second year of grad school, had decided he didn’t want to be a physicist any more, and was trying his hand at hydrogeology. He’d moved to DC to take a job modeling nuclear waste disposals, and so I’d go out there every three weeks or so. On two of those trips, I used the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is an internationally known collection founded by Henry Folger, one of the Standard Oil heirs who’d had a mania for collecting Shakespeariana (the collection includes a third of all known copies of Shakespeare First Folios). It’s an important English literature library (it is the third largest collection of English language incunabula and books from before 1640s in the world). His will established it in the late 1920s and in the 1970s it developed a more public profile.
I was there to look at printed copies of reports of Martin Luther’s death that were translated into English between 1546 and 1640. This was a library that was a pain to use — and I say that having used a lot of German early modern collections. I think there’s something about rare book collections in the U.S., a sort of insistence on being excessively virtuous because the books aren’t “from here.” Or maybe it was because it was a private institution. The only library that I’ve heard was use to use than this one is the Vatican Archive. Anyway, I had to provide a specific list of items I wanted to look at, and I had to provide letters from three already-established scholars who would vouch that my purposes were aboveboard. Then, when I got there, the items I wanted to take into the reading room myself were searched and limited and they replaced my pencil (usually you’re not allowed to take pens into scholarly reading rooms) with their own.
I got to see the items I wanted to see, but boy, was it off-putting. That is part of the purpose of institutions like this, to keep hoi polloi out (if you asked them, they would probably say that they were trying to limit theft or damages, and I don’t question that, but their entire manner was ridiculously officious). It was the first sign, I think, that I would ever have a “social issue” in a library because I didn’t come from the background of the kind of people who founded and maintained these institutions. There’s apparently something about me that must say “lower middle class origins” to other people. In the end that was not such a big deal for me, because most of the research I did was in German public collections and their ethos is very, very different. In the end, the Folger Shakespeare was just: a weird experience. They had an afternoon coffee hour for researchers, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth and I didn’t go, even though I probably should have. And I never went back after grad school, as I didn’t need the collection to do what I wanted.