Saturday, August 04, 2018

the college library revisited


For the past couple of weeks, I've been loosely plotting a library-related piece of writing about the sort of learning that happens in academia that is self-directed, outside the classroom, and in particular how libraries play a role.  Needless to say, as student who did not live on campus, or close enough by to slip home during the day, good old Howard Colman Library on the RC Campus became my second home in the early to mid-90's.  It was small compared to the bohemoth of my grad school library years at DePaul, and even small to Columbia's 5 floors, but you could usually find me upstairs in one of the study carrels that faced the brick stairwell walls, where I'd set up shop for the afternoon, and would occasionally leave things behind--things that I wouldn't miss if stolen but they never were--a notebook, a stack of books, my jacket--to claim the space when I came back after class. Mostly, I would sit, book open, with my brownbag lunch, usually a cheese & tomato sandwich,, usually can of Mr. Pibb or the weak French Vanilla instant coffee from the vending machines. Reading all sorts of things--my books for classes, things recommended by my professors, random things I found on the shelves that looked interesting. 

There was really no internet then, not campus-wide outside the labs (and even then only on 1 or 2 computers circa 1995), and barely even well functioning databases in the library. The catalog had just shifted from the giant card catalog on the 1st Floor to DRA, which wasn't always working or useful.  So I would spend that time reading from the collection, having found my way to the Lit section sort of randomly. For a brief time, I was all about the Beats, less so the actual writing, which outside of Ferlingetthi I never warmed to, but moreso the biographies, the books about the movement. The forgotten women of the Beat movement, who were more forgotten in the 90's than thankfully they are now. I loved literary biographies and devoured them on the regular.  I wasn't always writing in these years, and took a break from about late 1993-early 1996 and was focused more on theater creatively for a bit, but I was fascinated to read about the writers who work I was studying in my classes--mostly American 19th & 20th Century Lit--Faulkner, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor. I also kept detailed journals in black & white marble composition books about what I was reading and thinking.

Now it's weird to think you couldn't just google information, but I had to spend a lot of time opening book after book sort of randomly on that section of shelves, and that I did.  Endlessly and enthusiastically.  While I didn't read a lot of poems (which is readily apparent from the few poems I wrote I did read a lot of plays, which were just short enough to devour in a single sitting.   Later, I would find a quiet spot down in the exposed basement near the periodicals and spend time reading theatre magazines and lit journals, in close proximity to the hulking MLA index volumes I needed to use for classes. (I also used this quiet space as a place to nap in the afternoon, my backpack sprawled under my head and probably drooling.)  There was a beastly range of compact shelving that was terrifying and really noisy that would roar to life every few hours. Since the entrance to the tech services department was down there, occasionally a staffer would stroll through, but otherwise I was mostly alone here.

Since I spend most of my free time reading things on the internets these days, I guess my life then was not so different, just I was reading things on paper more-trying to forge out what I was going to do after graduation. At the time, I thought it was teaching, either English or Theatre, maybe both, in either a high school or college setting. So I read a lot about classroom strategies for English & drama teachers.  Later, when I circled back to writing poems my final two years,  I pored over writing mags and lit journals. Magazines, which I rarely even touch now, were my only way out into the world I wanted to be a part of--Writers Digest, Poets and Writers...This was true even earlier when I would check writing mags out from the public library before I was enrolled and return them dog-eared and occasionally late and/ or ragged enough for my dad to have to pay a fine when he took them back.

I suppose the internet changes things a bit for today's students like me, at least in regard to periodical reading, but the other stuff still is valuable, I did a lot of reading at home these years too, but without libraries, I wouldn't know nearly as much about the random weird shit that I do--Mothman, ghost stories, spontaneous human combustion.  How Jack Keruoac's favorite thing was bacon & egg sandwiches.  How no one should ever read Ayn Rand by choice. How Edna St. Vincent Millay died by falling drunkenly down the stairs (the internet fights me on this detail today, but I'm pretty sure I read it this way initially.)

Also, its funny to think that for all my love of libraries (and there are more love letters to come) it seems incredibly fitting that it's where I've spent the last 20 odd years getting paid to work in them, first the elementary school and then Columbia.  In truth, I just wanted a bookish sort of job to support my writing, but now I realize how foolish, given how much they formed me as a person,  it was to expect I would end up anywhere else....

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