Every library has cages or the equivalent.
Take it metaphorically if you wish, but the kind I’m referring to are the cubicle-style basement study rooms you see in academic libraries dating from the 1960s or earlier. I’m sure they were seen as a more private improvement over the ornate, great halls of the Ivy League and the Carnegie libraries where students lined up at hefty tables and read by the light of little green accountant lamps. Cages are private, often secluded in the bowels of a library basement, fortified by the densest stacks and shelves. Some libraries have study carrels instead. My undergrad library’s carrels looked unfortunately like swastikas when placed back-to-back an viewed with a bird’s eye.
The humanities library at my graduate university had dungeon cells painted in green that resembled army lockers– always full during finals. I once fielded an online reference quesiton from a student in one of these “cages” who wanted to let a librarian know–without leaving the safety and convenience of his cage–that some poor sap was vomiting in the bathroom nearby and “making a lot of noise.” What should the helpless patron do? He couldn’t study with all that racket! (I suggested the patron contact a non-virtual librarian at the reference desk in his library if he was worried for the vomiter’s safety. “That’s ok,” he said “It’s just annoying. I think I’ll use headphones.”)
A good library has a place for everyone. The classic librarian adage of “a book for everyone and everyone his book” is now trite. But even in the digital age, people still need a cozy corner to study in. Some prefer windows for dreaming, couches for curling up in like a loyal cat-disciple, or cages for enforced focus and seclusion. The best library furniture I’ve ever seen were the lipstick-colored womb chairs at Oberlin that offered all three Library Secret Space requirements: seclusion, comfort, and a view out the window– depending on how you spun the great ball of a chair.
Now what I like best is coming upon a study space and reading the tracks left behind by the studier. Graffiti is my favorite. As long as it’s not defacing a book, I –scandal and heresy!– don’t mind graffiti. At institutes of higher learning traces of brilliance, frustration, humor, and empathy are visible on bathroom walls and under study tables. Yes there is immaturity– penis sketches, phone numbers “for a good time”–but other students rarely let those stand without a wry comment scrawled below. I’ve seen philosophical dialog about the existence of god or true love written on the ladies’ room walls. I’ve seen suicide prevention in the stacks. I’ve seen, like today, a bucket list of things to do before death or marriage.
Best of all, I love seeing the unshelved books my patrons leave behind. Today for instance, I found a graffiti-covered cage in a far back corner. The cages here are white with bluish doors. “Perfect” for defacing yet not as dark and deathly as the name “cage” implies. There is indeed a little window of chickenfence facing out towards the B section (B821.M34 to B1649.R91 to be exact: Philosophy). On the desk in this room were three books plus a Nutcracker program and a Spring 2011 Course Catalog. Graffiti includes: “Think good thoughts!” and “What do you want to do before you die?” with responses in 14 different hands. People wanted to “enjoy life without pressures,” “apologize to dad,” “feel content,” and “live beyond this system.” The books, which I will reshelve, include: the New Cassell’s French-English Dictionary (1965), Ansel Adams “The National Parks” (2010), and a bound copy of The New Yorker, November-December, Volume 38 (1962). I might have studied here myself in a different space-time continuum.
A beautiful redhead in a little yellow shrug jacket adjusts her cat-eye glasses as four suits fawn over her. She looks just like Joan with her sultry smile, as if Joan were pretending to be Peggy. The caption reads:
“She has a way with glasses.
Wears them with dash. Fills them with dazzle…
Now what did they say about girls who wear glasses never having any fun?”
Oh the changing winds of 1962 where even a bespectacled woman could be Jackie Kennedy if she just knew how to make the dryest Seagram’s Gin martini!
It warms the cockles of my own bespectacled heart, makes me grateful that glasses have never been an obstacle to beauty in my generation, and makes me love my library and the patron who left these books here for me to find. I should be angry and reshelve them without a second thought. I should sponge away the erroneous phone numbers and final exam prayers scribbled on the walls of this cage. But to me, this is why we have academic libraries– to give students in a vulnerable and heady episode in their lives a place to pretend to be alone, a place to reflect on French, Ansel Adams’ WPA photography, 1960s advertising, and reconnecting with home and their father. Students still find a refuge in the library, and librarians still make a show of reshelving abandoned books and erasing defamation of library property. But some of us are doing so in sympathy, like Tom and Jerry or Elmer and Bugs. We know our role well. Yet, secretly, we live for stopping by all the cages in the library and finding proof we’re not the only ones who have a way with glasses.