Going to the Library

Memories of graduate school flood my mind these days. Those four years of coursework at the University of North Carolina marked the beginning of my life as a scholar. I had painfully figured out how to study as an undergraduate, but the fervid quest to learn, the burning desire to piece together difficult or obscure information, the yearning to cultivate knowledge and use it as a basis of one’s understanding—these things I learned between 1975 and 1979 at Chapel Hill.

Much of it happened through a tripartite process called “going to the library.” Three parts, you say? “Going to the library” sounds like one action, does it not? Let me explain.

First, you had to prepare yourself to go to the library, and “prepare” meant more than rinsing out your tea mug and finding your shoes. Prepare meant hours of gathering up questions, formulating ideas and goals, making lists of needed material, and identifying potential stumbling blocks. In short, it meant creating a master plan for each visit to the library.

Second, you actually had to go. I lived outside of Chapel Hill down a dirt road. My paradise was a single-wide trailer with the name Flamingo emblazoned across its forehead. Today that area has been gentrified and overflows with half-million-dollar homes. To me, that’s sad, particularly as I remember my neighbors—people who worked on farms, in stores, or at garment factories nearby—who saved my sanity on a day-to-day basis.

Be that as it may, the fact is, I had to leave my cozy trailer, bid farewell to my orange tabby cat, Maxim Gorky, and drive ten miles into town.

And I had to park. Even then, parking on campus was tricky. As I recall, we graduate students parked in a lot buried in the trees near the stadium, past the historic carillon. The walk from the lot, while surely shorter than students today have to make, was still something—especially in ice storms (which North Carolina has!).

Like every Ph.D. student in that program, I spent huge swaths of time in the legendary basement of Hill Hall, otherwise known as the music library. There, underneath a threatening web of low-hanging pipes on which you would bang your head every time, lay one of the country’s best music collections. Today that collection lives in a new library, and while I’m sure it’s wonderful, it can never evoke the kind of contradictory affection we had for that magnificent basement.

But my deeper sense of “library” was formed in a different building: the impressive Wilson Graduate Library, a neo-classical library built in 1929 (now repurposed for Special Collections). Its limestone steps, stately columns, and hushed rotunda proclaimed, “Treasures of Western Culture Ahead: Enter Ye with Awe.”

So now we have part three: We’ve actually gotten into the library! Part three begins with sitting on the cool floor of the Reading Room, a circle of thick tomes stacked around me. The process went like this: Drag the books down, figure out their organization, scan their contents and indices, and decide. The volumes were heavy, so you had to be sure you wanted them before dragging them to your cubicle.

Ah, the cubicle! A little, airless, windowless space with an uncomfortable desk and chair, set against the back wall of the stacks. Today’s students may not know the thrill of going deep “into the stacks,” but it’s similar to entering C. S. Lewis’ Narnia through a wardrobe.

And whatever resource you worked with, you had to paraphrase, hand copy, and otherwise record information tediously and accurately. No copy and paste keystrokes here. Nor could you double-check data from the comfort of your sofa at home. Instead, you put in your time, chose carefully, and copied it right.

Hours went by. Half-days went by. There was no cute café for a retreat either, as in some of today’s libraries. A water fountain and a handful of forbidden chips kept us going. It was hard. It was tiring.

And it was heaven. Absolute heaven.

Today, every time I work online, I still fast-forward through that three-part process in my mind. It still forms my structure, my foundation. I wish I could assert that we are better off with today’s online system of research, but I cannot assert that. I fear that what we “learn” today is as superficial as the process. For one thing, what I learned in those marathon library sessions did not flee my mind the minute I closed the book. Too much effort had gone into it. Information circulated as I trudged back to the parking lot and drove back out to my little trailer. It continued to grow as I filed through my hand-written notes. It laid the basis for the next time I would “go to the library.”

Yes, the technologies for today’s research are astonishing, but the process does not satisfy me nearly as much. Sometimes I feel as if I am more in touch with the cords that charge my devices than with the strands of material I’ve just learned.

I bemoan the fact that today’s student may never experience the visceral rewards that going to the library has brought for centuries: that marvelous physical process of preparing, anticipating, physically laboring, and painstaking fulfillment. These stages are no longer intrinsic to the cyber-learning world.

I also fear (let me get this out of my system) that the degree of inquisitiveness found in today’s restless young students, impatient to get it done, will fade into a kind of bland soup. How will they develop the skills to ask the hard questions and wrestle forth the answers? The wrestling is gone.

There is a particular type of nostalgia for a childhood and life gone by. Is this worry about the lost art of learning simply a misplaced nostalgia? Many would say: “Get with it Carol. That world is gone and we don’t need it, or buggy whips, any longer. The new way is better.” I wish they were right.

But I know they are wrong.

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