If there’s one thing we’ve showered a lot of love on, here at Book Riot, it’s libraries. We love libraries. And who wouldn’t? They’re a remarkable social creation that stretches back in human history for centuries. The idea of having a repository for books and knowledge which is readily available is, I think, as revolutionary and important as Hammurabi inscribing his laws on pillars for all to read.
So yeah, libraries are the best. But it occurred to me what we hadn’t celebrated on Book Riot are college libraries.
They might seem like roughly the same thing, but they aren’t really. I love them too, but it’s a different love to my love of regular libraries, because they’re so different themselves.
(A note before I go on: I am not writing college libraries VS regular libraries here, so even when they share features, that’s fine. I’m not stacking them against each other. This is love, not a contest)
The first thing I love about the college libraries is their collection of books and how WEIRD it truly is. It is sprawling and eccentric, because while some of it is just general fiction and nonfiction that’s good to keep on hand, quite a lot of the contents are books teachers have ordered for class curriculums. Depending on the school and the range of their course catalog, this can lead to some weird and very, very specific books on topics you didn’t know they wrote books about. I own a book on the rise and development of modern astronomy in China, because I took a class that was about specifically, only, that.
By contrast, though, the library will also have huge gaps in its collection. There’s fiction, sure, but rarely what you would expect. There might be some recent books, but not always a lot. This isn’t as reliable as browsing a bookstore by a long shot (except, randomly, when it is).
I am particularly fond of multi-level college libraries, and I’m going to talk about a specific one in Minnesota, at a school I attended, before my kids were born (don’t go to school with babies. You’re doomed. Heed my words, mortal.)
Anyway, this Minnesota library had two levels and a basement. On level one, all the endless study areas (beautiful wooden desks with golden lamps) and lots of reference shelves. Need maps? A globe, for some reason? The DSM 5? They gotcha covered.
Upstairs, more desks and more collection: art books, computer books, and so forth. So far so normal, could’ve been college OR public so far, right?
Here’s the two particular things I loved about that library, then. One: upstairs, they had an old document preservation and archive room. Halfway between a document archaeology office and a small museum of ancient letters and newspapers and so forth. If I recall correctly, one wasn’t even allowed in without permission, or a relevant class.
Two: the basement. Down in the depths, there was utter silence and a few study tables, but they were clearly besides the point. Down there, in four long rows that stretched on for a surprisingly massive distance, were great and uniform metal shelves, which compacted together unless you pressed a button to slide one of them out of the way and allow you in. And down here, in all of these stuffed shelves, the rest of the general collection truly met up with the weird, all of it organized in a categorical system I wouldn’t really understand until years later (2015, specifically). I loved not being able to comprehend it. Wandering through rows and just looking at each book, enjoying being surrounded by occasionally-massive tomes, fifty years old, on a topic I had t even known people wrote about. Or I would just enjoy how the book order veered around. Here’s fiction, Asimov, Isaac. Okay, so next should be fiction starting with B ri—nope, now it’s books about Trafalgar, that sounds neat, and oh now here’s some comics by Art Spiegelman, well all right.
Its like putting the whole library on a playlist and hitting shuffle. I loved that.
I also loved finding books which seemed like someone had forgotten, and God only knew why they were down here. Possibly, they WERE so forgotten that no one weeded them out? So you’d find very old, occasionally fragile books which were a hundred years old. It was in a college library that I found really old editions of books which had collected all of Charles Dickens’ correspondence (what he didn’t burn, anyway). I hadn’t even known until I found those volumes, tucked deep in the stacks, that they collected authorial letters! I was jubilant.
I think that college libraries perhaps get a greater license to be truly weird than do public libraries, because a public is (amazingly, heroically) trying to serve the needs of the public as best it can, through book collection and other services. A college library exists to supply the weird books professors want, give students places to study and do that thing that young students do in secluded spots (take naps). It doesn’t have to be as open and serving, which helps keep the weird in.
When my parents and us would take trips as kids, their hobby was to visit beautiful cathedrals and churches. Along those similar lines, I like to visit libraries when traveling…and if I can, I try to visit the libraries of any university I can find, as well. That sort of affable weirdness should be reveled in.