My favorite library is my alma mater’s, a seven-story building that allows its inhabitants to feel as though they are apart from the world. During my undergrad, many late nights found me seated somewhere on the third or fourth floor, tapping away at an essay or poring through a class text, highlighter in hand. This massive place inspired me toward studiousness, in a way that no other place on campus could do as reliably.
This is not to say I was a model student. I often procrastinated. Due dates approached steadily on my calendar, yet I shrugged them off in favor of more instant gratifications. Then, a night or two before, in a subdued panic, I would pack my bag with laptop and textbooks, make myself a thermos of coffee, and hike up the hill to the library for a late- or all-night session with my work.
Naturally, come 10:00, 11:00, 12:00 o’clock at night, my brain would need a break, shaken up and strained by the demands I placed upon it after days or weeks of relative inactivity. The overindulgence in caffeine didn’t help either.
It was in this state I would find myself on my feet, far enough away from my work station to breathe but still keeping my laptop within eyesight, pacing up and down the nearest aisle between shelves. Early my freshman year, on one such night, I encountered a hidden message in a book for the first time.
Although I can’t recall the exact message, I do remember it was in a science reference book I’d grabbed arbitrarily off the shelf. The sentiment of the message was of the “You can do it!” variety, and beneath the scrawly handwriting the author had left a smiley face.
Part of me wanted to keep the message for myself, but it looked so at home pressed between the diagrams and graphs of this reference book. The paper was a bit yellowed, leading me to think it had been there for some time. It felt wrong to disturb it, so I didn’t. I received its message, mentally thanked the person who’d written it, and left it alone for the next weary traveler.
Throughout the rest of my time at college, I encountered a few more messages left behind in library books. They were usually brief, happy little notes, imploring the reader to keep their head up, stay positive, or do their best. You know: tiny bits of motivation stuffed away for those who needed it.
I almost never removed the notes from their books. It felt like part of the implicit agreement, that in order to receive the note’s positivity one would need to pay it forward by leaving it behind.
The one exception to this was a note that explicitly urged whoever found it to move it to another book. It was a folded up piece of notebook paper, with the directive to write the name of the book you found it in, as well as the date you found it, and then move it to another book. As with any other message I found, I don’t remember the exact details, but I do recall the first date being about four years prior to when I found it.
When I came upon this note, it was in a play I was reading for class. Without much hesitation, I knew I would like to find a copy of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and put it there. I knew the exact page I would like to leave it on, too. Call it one of those mysterious impulses our minds get from time to time, the instant recall of information it hasn’t accessed in years, spurred on by unexpected stimuli.
I went looking for The Chocolate War, and thankfully found a copy. I filled out the paper with the name of the play I’d found it in, and the date. I then flipped to the first description in the book of the poster in Jerry’s locker that read do I dare disturb the universe? (Cormier borrowed this line from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock).
It’s been almost a decade since I graduated college, and the libraries I’ve frequented since then don’t seem to have very many renegade messages hidden in their books. Occasionally I might find the previous borrower’s receipt, or an old bookmark. Maybe hidden notes are a giant pain in the ass for librarians to deal with—if they are, I am sorry.
What compelled me about this phenomenon at my college were the messages’ role in documenting time and place. Universities are transient places, people coming and going on a fairly set schedule. There’s something moving to me about standing in a place and leaving a message behind for the people who will stand there after you, after you’ve left.
In writing this, I hope every one of those messages is still there, circulating around the seven stories of my university library, making whoever inhabits that space now, long after I’ve left, feel a little less alone on a long night of schoolwork.