The Library

Catherine Curtis

I’m standing just west of the general circulation desk, barely inside the entrance to Brigham Young University’s library, staring at a painting of President Lee, the library’s namesake. I’m thinking about the significance of three plaques full of donor names flanking the painting, and one plaque blank with anticipation, and wondering why what began as the J. Reuben Clark Library has become the Harold B. Lee Library—perhaps Clark fell from institutional grace or Lee made a significant contribution (though I’ve since learned that nothing dramatic or scandalous happened; the Law School needed a namesake, and once it claimed Clark, the library needed a namesake. Very tame and appropriate, very BYU). Not many people stop here, for this purpose, so I notice the guy a few feet away, also looking at the picture.

“Do you like it?” he asks me, inviting himself into my world.

Do I like the painting, or do I like him? What is he asking me? I wonder. I’m skeptical of his “for the love of art” approach, especially since there’s nothing great about this painting, but I decide to play along to be polite.

“Sure, I like it. What do you like about it?”

“I just wonder what he was thinking,” he responds philosophically. A provocative question.

I’m quickly tiring of our art museum exchange, plus I have work to do and questions of my own to answer, so I suggest, “Probably ‘How much longer do I have to hold my mouth in this position?’” and throw in a “Have a nice day,” as I walk into the main section of the library.

Perhaps had he been more attractive and less predictable, the scene would’ve played out differently. But he was too obvious. Too eager in his purpose. I wanted to at least maintain the pretense that I had come to the library to study; he didn’t seem to mind his transparency.

 

The Harold B. Lee Library sits at the geographical center of BYU campus, with two main openings pumping knowledge in and out. At the most recent dedication of the library (year 2000), Gordon B. Hinckley described the library as “the very heart and substance of a university.” Books like blood in the veins. Brigham Young University sprawls across 8,988,707 square feet of ground: the library claims only 665,000 squares of those feet, a modest 7%, a disproportionate ratio between function and form, but rather like the hearts in our bodies. (Generally, scientists ballpark heart size by comparing it to the size of the fist—I tried to calculate a more specific percentage by ounces and estimate that my heart makes up only 3% of my weight).

A large relief globe rotates slowly on the second floor. Red velvet rope partitions demand students’ distance and reverence, and a green and white library EXIT sign hangs just over the Arctic Circle. “This globe,” a framed notice informs, “is a valuable work of art, presented to Brigham Young University by the class of 1966…. Thanks to their generosity we are able to view this replica of our fragile planet. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH.” While I am busy not touching, I feel a buzz creep into my brain: the globe is humming as it spins, making a noise similar to a distant industrial-sized vacuum (a familiar noise in the HBLL)—a noise that gets louder from California to the Middle East, then drops back to a vibration.

I can’t get the buzz out; I want the noise to stop; no one else seems to notice or mind. Stop fighting and explore the buzz…what if the Earth’s spinning really was a noisy affair…if the axis and poles rust with space condensation and creak a little near the center…if our planet made its business of turning obvious to the point of distraction for its inhabitants…if there are exit signs directing how to get off this planet…if people or aliens or who-knows-what passing by our fragile planet are given the warning, PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH….

Some models should not be pushed too far. But the globe is there, humming for attention, perhaps begging students to look up from their books (more likely computers) and see an allusion to reality, an untouchable reference to a tactile world, a reminder that we hole ourselves up in the library to study what goes on outside of it.

 

The library can be territorial. Students scout for prime locations, given their criteria for social and academic success. Wi-Fi Internet, cushiness of chairs, proximity to other humans, windows, sound level, accessibility, see-ability by the opposite sex…these are just a few things that determine where one studies. Some areas attract introverts (first floor cubicles), while others (fourth floor tables, juvenile collection) are dominated by the herd, a group of friends that have staked their claim together.

Lately, I’ve been trying to break into the south fifth floor scene. It feels like a party up there with the consistent collective murmur that rises and falls between the tables, sweeping like a wave from north to south. I have friends on the fifth floor to help ease my entry, which is why I started studying there in the first place, but when I exit the stairwell and don’t see a familiar face, I’m in a bind. My first obstacle is choosing a table. Do I sit at a table with only one empty seat: cozy, but presumptuous? Do I sit at a table with two seats taken on one side, and two seats open on the other, throwing off the balance of the universe? Do I sit at a table with one person on each side, forcing me to choose which party I sit by? Do I sit at a table with only one other person, and do I sit next to, across from, or diagonal from this person, and what does each choice imply? And if I am choosing to sit at a table with people already there, do I pick the one with the most attractive boys (also presumptuous) or the least threatening girls? I know the gods are smiling when I find a completely empty table, because I’ve tricked myself into thinking the empty table lets me slip past the character implications of all the other choices. Choosing the empty table is choosing the easiest way.

But upon choosing, my trouble is not over.

My social conscience cannot rest, because now I have to wonder what to make of who does or doesn’t sit by me. I’ve been sitting here alone now for 20 minutes. People continue to walk past, finding seats, and yet, not at my table. Do I smell? Am I scary-looking? Do they see something in me that I don’t? Finally a boy approaches my table, pulls out the chair next to me, and asks if he can borrow it to sit at another full table. Great. Not only does he not want to sit by me, he wants to anti-sit by me—and prevent others from sitting by me too. Then, insult to injury, a couple sits down across from me, quickly snoggling over their computers and playing footsie with me by mistake. On days like this, it seems the only thing I learn at the library is my social ineptitude.

Looking at the library floor map, shelving dominates the space. The area where my social drama plays out is reduced to a small, striped wi-fi coverage zone, another instance of disproportionate physical space.

 

During another visit to the library, I’m back on the second floor, working at one of the sporadically placed open-access computers near the humming globe. On a trip to the bathroom, I stop and ask the young man working at the reference desk if the world stops turning when the library closes.

“Yes, they unplug it at night. Would you like me to unplug it now?”

“Well, no—do you do that?” It seemed like a bold request to me.

“Sometimes people say it hums too loud.”

No kidding. The whole exchange reminded me of that 80s song: “I’ll stop the world and melt for you; I’ve seen some changes but it’s getting better all the time/the future’s open wide/I’ll stop the world and melt for you….” I’m guessing members of Modern English didn’t spend their Friday nights at the university library, though that is not to say the library is without passion. Just the other night, I looked up from my book on the fifth floor in time to see a girl mouth to her boyfriend, “I wish I was making out with you right now.” Beats homework.

 

The stairs connecting the ground level of the library (third floor) and the fourth floor have been walked on the most. Enough, in fact, to wear a dip in the stone right next to the inner handrail. Every other staircase is uniform and unremarkable, except this section of thirty stairs. Sometimes I sit on a bench across from the staircase to watch the people come and go, and despite the whole step-able stair, most every person slides her feet into that same groove, faithfully following the tread of those before.

Some paths to (can you have paths from?) knowledge are more frequently taken. I like to think of my mind as a landscape—a Southern Utah desert—for my thoughts to roam. A new book may reveal to me a canyon previously hidden; a class in school may give me courage to walk backwards on a trail to see it from behind for the first time. Despite efforts to stretch my wanderings, I am a person of habit physically and mentally, returning to places of comfort and wearing some ground thin with my circling.

A plaque displays a scripture on the landing that splices the dented stairs—the only plaque of its kind in the library:

“And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”

If eyes made impressions like feet, this plaque would be tarnished and smoothed by use. I look at it at least several times a week: only once in a while do I see it. But when I do see it, I pause awkwardly in my predetermined steps while all my focus hustles to my mind. Some thoughts are too demanding to be multi-tasked. It’s that pesky first clause that induces paralysis: “and as all have not faith….” It’s like the library has been waiting for me—like it knew I would come, in all my faithlessness.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, faith is “confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc. of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine).”

The library subscribes to many online databases, including the Oxford English Dictionary, which brings the etymology and meaning of 231,100 words to me without me moving a muscle except for the one in my mouse-clicking finger. The combined definitions of 231,100 words weigh 137.72 pounds, as compiled in the Second Edition of the OED, a fact I will have to take on faith since computer screen pages are weightless.

This plaque—this clause—they justify the library, marking it a haven for the faithless, for students with questions, for people who doubt the goodness of those around them.

 

Standing in the atrium of the library, I feel like I’m in Grand Central Station. The three glass walls resemble a greenhouse more than a train station, but the energy of anticipation is the same. The noise of the bustle churns among moving bodies and fills the vast space. The acoustics are wonderful. The doors turn like mechanized fans; the stone floor amplifies determined steps, especially heel-wearing steps. Sometimes people stop to talk, mostly they move. Where do they go after they go in? Masses of people (averaging 10,565 a day in 2007) come through the atrium and disperse to wander between shelves, sleep in the bathrooms, or talk on their phones in stairwells.

The library, not just the atrium, works as a terminal—it is the transfer point for all destinations, mental or social.

 

In 2004, the Harold B. Lee Library ranked first in the Princeton Review, beating out Harvard, Yale, and the rest of the Ivy Leagues. The Review placed libraries based on student surveys, which means that BYU students in 2004 were more satisfied with their library than all other students in the U.S. The Deseret News asked Randy Olsen, director of the library, to explain the high ranking, and he attributed it to the efforts of the library staff to make the library a “hip hangout.”

“We’re a social center at BYU,” he responded. Satisfaction with the library probably skyrockets once you have found your soul mate amidst its volumes.

Things would be a lot less confusing if those for whom the library has performed its service (the marrieds) would study elsewhere. That would save the rest of us still in pursuit a lot of trouble and embarrassment while determining who to sit by. Add to the table-choosing mix the awkward investigating to find a flash of band on the left ring finger. My friend Steph was once confused for someone’s wife in the library. She was sitting in a cubicle on the north side of the fifth floor, hunched over her homework, when someone put his arms around her and swooped his head from behind to kiss her on the cheek. Who was more startled? My freshman-never-had-a-boyfriend-or-felt-a-man’s-lips-but-her-father’s roommate Steph or the married man who’d embraced another woman, acknowledging in the process that perhaps he didn’t know his wife as intimately as he thought?

Sophomore year, Steph had her first real kiss on the west side of the second floor in a row of cubicles I’ve never visited. Though it seemed stuffy to me at the time (the thought of a first kiss in the library has grown on me over the years), she found it very romantic and appropriate. When Steph and Mark left the library, giddy with hormones and their secret, they ate two tulips from the library garden—bit them straight off the stems, right next to the entrance.

“They tasted terrible.” Steph grinned that night as she shared the various escapades of her mouth, grinned as she thought what the rest of our roommates thought…the tulips tasted terrible, unlike that kiss, which we could only imagine.

 

When I want to “start taking myself seriously” as my academic advisor recently counseled, I go to the first floor, south side, where there is a cluster of computers that hardly ever hits full use. I don’t get cell service on the first floor even though I’m not technically underground—just under five floors of library—but if I were to tunnel horizontally far enough to break beyond the library’s 665,000 square feet, I would end up underground. 60 steps underground, according to the south stairwell. Sometimes it takes that kind of descent to disconnect me from my social network.

Not everyone on the first floor is disconnected. To my left and my right, two male students stare disinterestedly at computer screens: I expect to see accounting or calculus homework on the other end of their gazes. Then one sighs and whispers “no!”, the other smiles, and another student who I’ve just noticed at the computer opposite me starts raptapping on his computer keypad. I sneak a not-so-subtle look and see a battle of some sort taking place in neon and rapid fire on both screens. Their hands maneuver the mouse with dexterity I’ve never seen; the student across from me is shaking. Occasionally, they call out to each other—tense one word snippets that have no meaning to me as a foreigner to the LAN scene. The shaking student cries, “Oh no!” and puts his hand over his mouth, unaware perhaps (they are all wearing headphones, to hear the artillery blast, no doubt) of how loud he is speaking.

The more they sigh and moan and laugh, respectively, the more I want to look at their screens, or join the game even. But I feel creepy and they are getting suspicious, so I keep my eyes on my own work. Mostly. I struggle for three hours with Bakhtin and Derrida, studying for a midterm, and they stay deep in the world of Warcraft. Another non-LANer sits nearby at a table, chuckling at the gamers’ outbursts. He catches my eye, and we share “a knowing smile,” the kind you hear about in kinky supermarket romances, which I heard about from my mother during her mid-life crisis. Connection, underground. Another library success story.