Monday, July 18, 2005

Because nobody has sex on a keyboard 

That's the answer to the question "Why do people still have sex in libraries?", according to Thomas Benton.
I have heard that one of the rites of passage for undergraduates at Harvard University is to have sex in stacks of the vast, labyrinthine Widener Library. It's sort of an academic version of joining the "Mile-High Club."

I suppose sex in the stacks is meant to lampoon the library's aura of high-minded seriousness and Puritanical chastity. Harvard used to keep Leaves of Grass in a locked case in order to guard the moral virtue of undergraduates. And that was in the days before Harvard admitted women.

That copy of Leaves is now in the Houghton Library. The more erotic passages have been underscored and commented upon by James Russell Lowell, the very man who promised one concerned parent that he would "keep it out of the way of students."

...For the record, I have never had sex in the stacks, and -- even after many years of lurking in several major collections -- I have never had to discreetly avoid anyone else in flagrante delicto. But I have had many moments in stacks of great libraries that were almost erotic in their intellectual intensity.

I have had moments in reading a text -- an ordinary one that might now be found online -- when I noticed a minor reference in the margins that sent me a few shelves down to find a much more obscure book that was packed with unexpected clues that changed my project entirely.
The library at Claremont was like this for me: I would grab books on economics, which were in the basement of Seeley-Mudd library. In those days you could take them out into a courtyard in the basement unaccessible from the street. You could also smoke there (yes, Viriginia, I used to smoke cigarettes. Bicycling to work after moving off campus disabused me of the habit.) One day I'm reading a first edition of Paul Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis, which was his dissertation. There are notes, the handwriting of which I recognize as one of my professor's. Now these didn't lead me to more obscure books like in Benton's story, but they did lead me to learn the story of this professor's interactions with Samuelson when they were classmates at Harvard. (To make a long story short, they competed for the affections of a female classmate; my prof won -- it is said this drove Samuelson to work harder on his dissertation.)

A roommate used to hang around the Sir Francis Bacon Library, which he took me to once where I met this woman who spent her entire life around these books that would have thrilled Bacon. It's now out at the Huntington Library in San Marino, one of those truly special places for historians and lovers of flora and fauna (for the gardens around them.)

I was thinking about something Saint Paul said during the book meme tour, that he didn't own many books and was rather fond of journals instead. I had two thoughts. I still adore those days when I can wander into a library and just browse the journals section. The internet makes this easier with services that tell you which articles everyone is downloading or new journals appearing, or whatever. But for some reason I like the tactile sensation of turning pages in a journal, and really looking at an abstract and the flow of an article. It's not duplicated by mouse clicks.

Do parents ever drop their kids at libraries any more, to work on homework for a few hours? I don't think we would with the LS, given its location and the fact that homeless will sleep in there. It seems a shame; the old Manchester public library is a memory with me for life. Benton concludes his piece,
I am grateful that my graduate alma mater had browsable stacks. That was the foundation of my education. The books were more important, by far, than the superstar scholars who, like books in an off-site warehouse, were available for consultation only with great difficulty. In the future, I will encourage more of my students to consider universities with open, centrally located library collections -- such as Chicago -- above other comparably prestigious institutions with different priorities.

I wrote this column on a computer in a room filled with books. In five years I will have a new computer on which most of my old software and storage media will not run. The books will still be here, and my children will be able to read them. And so will their children.
My son is named after a book title, just as the title is named after the author's son. (Given my heritage, you should be able to figure this out. This will drive Mitch nuts.) His gift for one important birthday was the book. I don't imagine Saint Paul will bequeath his Weekly Standards or Atlantics.