Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 12, 2010

Carrel of Monkeys

In which we continue our observations in recognition of National Library Week. See the previous entry HERE.

In my non-halcyon year of graduate study in medieval language, on a storied campus in a now-bankrupt state, I was, for the first time in my life, on my own. No more jolly dorm life shared with fellow undergraduate idiots on the ivy-covered little campus of my baccalaureate years (yes, by god, there WAS ivy, I swear it). I arrived in town knowing no one but the couple from whom I rented a room. I slowly made some acquaintances in the English Department. Slowly. Graduate students are Serious People. Some of them actually are adults, something I couldn’t claim to be, and they already have their own lives. In this particular department the 70 or so of us Masters candidates were in competition with one another for probably 4 slots in the PhD program, so it was kind of like Versailles when the King was having a Bad Day. Not a lot of camaraderie. I had a lot of time on my own. I could afford the room at Chip & Judy’s place because it was a long, long way from the campus and their rent was relatively low for a big university town. I had a bicycle, though I had not done an adequate job of estimating how cold it would be in winter and how much snowfall there’d be in the valley of the Huron River, up above the 42nd parallel. This meant that each day, especially once I was limited to walking to and from class once the cold and snow set in, I was out of the house for the entire day.

Class, of course, only occupies so much time. If I had an early class and then one later in the day, I needed a refuge for some hours in between. There was this so-called “graduate lounge” in the English Department building. Oh, man. Formica tables, chairs, ashtrays. Ugly hell, gape not! I tried the Student Union and found a busy, thriving place that would be wonderful if you needed to gather up a few hundred extras for a movie about the ’67 Pentagon March (this was 1973 and everyone was already in costume), but it was a little too raucous to think about spending any quality time there.

Then I poked into the reading room at the Law School. That was the place, man! Picture any movie like “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” or something involving Oliver Reed and Laurence Olivier set at Oxford or Cambridge: a long, high-ceilinged room with stained-glass clerestory windows up high and wrought-iron chandeliers dangling above rows of long, burnished wooden tables, the walls lined with leather-bound volumes. What a place! Indiana Jones and Mutt drive their motorcycle through a room like that in the last Raiders movie, except this was bigger and nicer (the whole Law School there is a phony-baloney imitation of Cambridge or Yale: carved limestone with gargoyles and gothic windows and stuff. HERE is a photo. You get the idea.)

I sat there for about 30 minutes, reading. Looking around. Pretending to read. It was terrible. There were only three other people in the room. I kept expecting Oliver Reed, wearing a long black gown and wearing one of those beret-like European University hats, in the role of The Evil Provost or something like that was going to sweep into the room saying, “Mr. Nixon, I certainly hope by now you have fully conjugated the ablative of all the derivations of voluntatis?” I left. Not very comfortable digs.

Although I wasn’t very good at finding out as much as I should have about what facilities and services and such were available to me as a big-time grad student at a big-time U., I did determine that there was a separate library for graduate students, and that I had “stack privileges” in said establishment. Since the business of being a graduate student in language or literature is basically the business of reading and writing, and since I was going to need access to a lot of books, anyway, I inspected the place. HERE is a picture of it, looking a lot like it did 35 years ago.

Stack privileges mean that you can go to where the books are shelved (the “stacks” and get your own books off the shelf, and either read them there or take them to the desk to check out. Without stack privileges, you (in those days) looked up the book you wanted in the card catalog (those of you younger than 40 will just have to ask someone what that was), wrote the call number on a slip of paper (an OFFICIAL slip, please), and waited for someone to get it for you.

Universities have libraries, and to be great universities, they must have great libraries. This was a really excellent library, and it was one of many, many libraries at the school. I did check out the Undergraduate Library. Once. Not enough extras for your March on the Pentagon movie yet? Go there.

In the stacks of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, I found my refuge. The books occupied the center of the big rectangular floors. Ranged all around three sides of the rectangle were carrels: little rooms, each with its own door, a chair, a shelf-like desk and a shelf above that for stuff. There were carrels on the long side of the building that had windows, but those were the preserve of professors, and locked. The other carrels were officially assigned to someone, but there were always empty ones.

Quiet, immediate access to the books I needed (Lang. & Lit. was all on the Dewey system, no hateful Library of Congress numbers there!), and even a great place to eat my lunch, which I carried to campus with me, either a baloney sandwich or a cheese sandwich, or a baloney-and-cheese sandwich. I had a thermos of hot tea, and I was ensconced in a mighty bastion of knowledge. Because that very school had been home to a long string of distinguished scholars in the field of Anglo-Saxon literature, I occasionally came across volumes in the stacks in which one of the great names in the field had made pencil notes in the margins, sometimes writing something like, “Onions is wrong: this variant not Wessex!” (C. T. Onions, honestly, was a noted scholar in the field.) Try finding stuff like THAT in a book on your iPad!

Those Library Days represent some of the best of my memories of that year, but they were topped by a genuine Brush With Greatness, library-wise. Late in the year, I got one of those blue air mail-grams that, I assume, are a thing of the past mailed to me. It was postmarked, “citta Vaticano”! A PhD student, a friend of my housemates Chip & Judy was spending the semester researching his thesis in the Vatican Library.  He knew that I was interested in the runes that appear in some of Anglo Saxon literature. He had come across a manuscript from something like the 13th Century in which a scribe had annotated an alphabet with runic symbols, and written out some explanations of the correspondence between letters and runes. Tom had carefully copied out the symbols and writing onto this mailgram and sent it. Man! A previously unknown source of some runic inscriptions! From the Vatican Library! This is the sort of thing that scholars build their reputations on! Or, if you’re Dan Brown, write The DaVinci Code. I did neither, I’m sorry to say. I was frying other fish, trying, unsuccessfully, to finish up the work in the non-medieval seminar I’d been forced to take due to scheduling, and didn’t have time to pursue this tantalizing lead. It still ranks as one of my number-one library experiences, vicarious as it may be. I think I still have that letter somewhere ….

© 2012 Brad Nixon



  1. Did you see this story:

    Also loved seeing the word “clerestory”. Always brings to mind defenestration.



    • John, fascinating on a couple of counts – they’ll keep one cabinet so that people of the future will know what the past system was like. AND the news that the stacks themselves may be removed, and almost everything go digital — no more marginalia! sic transit.


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