It’s finals week at Berkeley. When I took this picture there were literally two seats open out of several hundred in Doe Library’s main reading room. Go team.
Not to sound cruel or anything, but collective academic suffering of this magnitude always reminds me how much I love being a librarian. This is probably because I went to Reed College, a tiny liberal arts school with an extraordinary library culture. At Reed, Hauser Library is the absolute locus of activity on campus, as integral to the daily existence of the terminally nerdcore Reed student as Pabst and cigarettes. Packed, intense, and hectic, towards the end of Spring semester it is permanent home to between 100-200 seniors hunched at coveted personal carrels, racing against time to complete the terrifyingly comprehensive thesis required of all students. Somehow sleeping bags and futon mattresses become unofficially tolerated around this point in the semester, making Hauser an exceptional example of a library that fulfills every imaginable service. It is the heart and soul of Reed, and I literally cannot remember how many times I spent the night there (accidentally or intentionally).
There’s a library ritual at Reed known as the “thesis parade,” a deceptively benign-sounding rite of passage for graduating seniors. It begins with a collective burning of thesis manuscripts in front of Hauser’s main doors minutes after they are officially due, and invariably devolves into a beautiful, elated, inebriated riot:
(Yes, that’s greek. Nerdcore.) Come thesis time of my senior year I happily joined in the cathartic and time-honored culmination of the parade, a semi-destructive dash through the library itself. This event occurs to the enjoyment/terror of library staff, traditionally barricaded behind the circulation desk. Faculty line up on the upper floors and balconies to watch the carnage. Speaking from experience, there is no greater pleasure than hollering en masse inside a place that is perennially quiet. Crashing soot-covered and champagne-soaked through the Hauser fire escape doors, my fate as a librarian was sealed. I would love to go back to Reed to witness this spectacle from the staff perspective, knowing now how much I wish that all students were able to, at some point in their academic careers, run headlong through a much loved library with bottle in one hand and unidentified fireworks in the other.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate rules and regulations, or that I think academic libraries should necessarily encourage sleepovers and alcohol. I just know that without a doubt it was the periodic bending of procedure that allowed students at Reed to truly love their library. Hauser had a sense of humor at least as strong as its sense of policy, and because it supported us in joy and pain we regarded it with veneration.
This is the sort of thing librarians must understand – not only is the worn-out turtleneck of strict library protocol uncomfortable, it looks bad on us, too. If we come across as stuffy and inflexible, we drive our users away and prevent them from forming their own library rituals and traditions. Academic libraries in general could do more to enable the type of community that is based on shared endeavor, and at tolerating expression inside and outside of our buildings that is more creative than it is typical. Many places already do this, and more could simply do it better – it usually starts with something as straightforward as comfortable chairs and enough outlets, or relaxing policies around food and communication that make buildings uninviting. This in itself is no revelation, but thinking of it in an ethnographic sense might help us perceive how students make meaning from library experience. Given the opportunity students will claim a space, defining it by sheer force of necessity if it allows them to be even nominally engaged in shaping its culture.
I haven’t been at Berkeley long enough to truly get a sense of how students relate to the various libraries on campus. The buildings I work in definitely share some of the same feeling of intensity that I experienced at Reed, if not the sense of student-library symbiosis. This much I know: when Obama was elected, a coworker sent this around a link to this video, taken by a student library employee, of spontaneous celebration in our main stacks: