Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Stacks

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - Wilson Library

In college I studied in what was called "the stacks" at the old, old library on campus. While the main reading room was a glorious, windowed hall with long, dark study tables and those perfect little click-on study lamps, the marble floor worn and rubbed by generations, it was upstairs in the Tower that I preferred. You took an elevator to the seventh or eighth floor, I believe, and walked a labyrinth of aisles and shelves of books in dim lighting to the carrels lining the walls. Some of the carrels were metal but more were wood and they were pockmarked and pencil-bit with the graffiti of generations of students. I was one of those people who loved school, loved the actual work, the studying, the piles of books and notebooks, the perfect pen with which to take notes, the yellow pads to write my papers, the little lined books whose name I've forgotten that we used for tests.  While some of the carrels were lit by daylight from dirty windows, the place was very dark and spooky at night. It was completely quiet in the carrels, the only sound the turning of pages, the coughs and raised whispers only punctuated the silence. When I'd get tired or sleepy, I would stand up and wander down the aisles, pulling down musty texts and fingering yellowed pages. It was thrilling, actually, to be alone with all those books, the kind of loneliness that settles warm in the body and stays there.

I also loved the carrels because that's where I'd find my boyfriend, equally scholarly except for a not too tiny penchant for smoking the evil weed. When I still had only a crush on him, I'd sidle by his carrel and pretend that I didn't see him, placing my stack of books around the corner where I'd wait until he'd find me. And when it all really started, there was a dark and exciting intimacy to kissing at those ancient desks.

 The library was only open until 11:00 and some minutes before, an old man, I swear, would walk the stairwells and into the stacks, swinging a cowbell. He had a long, Dickensian face and even now I can hear that sound and see his stooped thin body, but I wonder, too, if I've made him up. We'd spill out of our carrels, because who, really, wanted to actually spend the night there, our papers and books shoved into backpacks and wander down, getting into a long line that passed a small desk where library moles made cursory checks ensuring that we hadn't stolen anything precious. In the last year of college, the library Tower was closed and I abjectly began to study in the new, modern library across campus.

I thought about all of this the other day when I clicked on one of my favorite online sites. It's called Typo of the Day for Librarians

My secret fantasy is to be a librarian. Just me, with my glasses on, quiet, and a lot of books.


  1. There is something about libraries, they also make me think of The Wings of Desire library scene :).

    This is a lovely portrait of the library tower.

  2. Libraries are sacred, holy places. Have you ever heard Jimmy Buffett's song, "Love In The Library"? It's sweet.

  3. Sizzle, sizzle to the library kissing! Ohh-weee! Libraries have an amazing way of calming a soul while thrilling it at the same time. Love libraries, love ancient stuff, love this post.

  4. I taught for years. Today, when I suggest that students should get a certain book out of the library, they will often just look at me, not really understanding the concept.

  5. Oh , I loved reading this,wished for it to go on.

    As a library lover, I so get this. Well, not a lover in your sense, but you know... o

  6. I love the imagery and the photo. You made this come alive for me. I would be happy in a library with a bunch of books

  7. Libraries and bookstores always help me feel at home when I get homesick. Lovely post.

  8. Oh, love this writing so much. What amazing details. The whole place came alive, magical. Wow.
    How sad that the tower closed. Sounded like a sacred place.
    Thanks for sharing this.
    I love it so much I'm off to read it again.

  9. I love libraries, I used to love ours even more when it was quiet, solemn, a book temple. Big marble staircases and dark rooms, long wooden tables. Not a single computer on site, not even the librarians who looked busily moving their finger with the ability of a musician across long narrow drawers, and suddenly you hear, here it is. Like a Eureka coming across to let you that the book was yours for a week or two.

    I don't know if I could be a librarian unless I was left alone with the books and no distractions, but I would have loved to work at the library after hours in the days of my youth. Moving writing, as always.

  10. Love the post. As a library board trustee, I appreciate all of the comments. I, too, loved the old and quiet libraries but libraries must constantly change and adapt to what is necessary for the public. Many people cannot afford computers and so libraries provide them. I love "paper" books but libraries must provide all sorts of media, including the electronic devices becoming so popular. Please keep patronizing and supporting your local libraries so they will always be there to serve and educate.

  11. Wow -- you took me right back to my college days -- the stacks, the tower, and looking for Paul who would hide somewhere within to get work done. I did prefer our reading room though, also much like yours sans the cool lamps.

  12. What a fascinating post! If there's something I love about Britain is the amount of libraries it's got. I enjoyed your column so much today. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  13. Honestly, woman...that was some fab writing and I was right there...I too loved the books, the school. I'd do it again in a minute. You know, I started the Master's of Library Science degree some years ago...couldn't finish because I was already burned out...the school had a rare books library where you had to wear gloves and you could look at ancient books...handwritten...little tiny things bound in silk...giant volumes of hand-tooled leather...glorious.

  14. the perfect pen. books. whispers. yes!

    perhaps the old man with the cowbell is the product of your fertile mind, perhaps the ghost of bibliophiles past. either way, what a gleaming jewel to have in the crown of you personal story.

    beautiful post, elizabeth

  15. Carrel, I haven't heard or thought of that word in a very long time. Back a lifetime ago I spent hours in the library. Funny how a life becomes segments, like an orange. Memory can pick up a section and look at it.

  16. you peeled back the layers of time and transported me to my youth...
    what a refuge a library can be. i loved the intimacy of peering quietly into yours..

    which led me on to tender memories of my own.

    thank you...
    i am just home from a week teaching at Orme, where the library is a long quiet bank of windows opening to an endless desert. within, long wooden tables and endless bookcases, resides a thoughtful gallery of art. bronze, metal, textiles, stunning visual delights for those moments when what you are reading is so soul stirring you must look up...and catch your breath.

  17. The boy I met at the library was what I thought to be "the one."
    He worked the front desk.
    I would stay there for hours. He taught me how to play "dots". I always smile when the kids now ask me to play that game.
    In a small cubicle on the third floor he told me, for the first time, that he loved me.
    An he gave me a tiny Clifford The Big red dog stuffed animal.
    ANd that is ironic, should anyone know my daughter, who carries the big version of that stuffed animal everywhere since birth.

    I always imagined that the same third floor cubicle was going to be the place where he proposed to me.

    Damn you have just so clearly taken me back years and years, and I have just too much to do NOW to go back there...

    damn you. And thank you.

    (you should start a sort of "scenes from the library" weekly post! Seems like everyone has some kind of memory that took place inside of the walls covered with beautiful)

  18. when I was a kid I wanted to be an artist or a librarian.
    What I really miss? the old card catalogs - the drawer that pulls out - dewey decimal system memorized - soft edged index cards - touched millions of times

  19. Oh, I love this post! This picture is amazing! Love your memories!

    Happy Week!

  20. This is so beautifully reminds me of the library where I studied at Pomona. Except I didn't have a fun romance in the stacks. Your words about the pens, the paper...I get it. So nice to know that we have that in common, too.
    With everthing going electronic, people are letting go of the physical experience of holding a book, but not me; I'll always love the real thing.

  21. What a beautiful memory of secrets in books and secrets in and of life. About libraries, I'd never seen the stacks until I was in the US. In our libraries, only librarians can access the stacks, while readers fill out limited request forms.

  22. You didn't dream cowbell man. He was there.



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