[Marxism] Butler Library

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 27 10:37:26 MDT 2012

A lovely article on one of my favorite places in the world.

NY Times June 26, 2012
Grazing in the Stacks of Academe

In Still Life, a series of articles beginning this week, writers 
for The Times sketch their favorite summer images.

The heat comes quickly in the summer. By early June, working at 
home with no air-conditioning, I have no concentration. Everything 
feels close and impolite and loud.

So I go to Butler Library, on the southern end of Columbia’s 
campus in Morningside Heights. What began as a diversion has 
become a self-preserving summer thing: not just Butler, but the 
Butler stacks, the stillness capital of my imagination.

My job as a music critic depends on listening in crowds and 
writing in solitude. It also involves gathering facts and context, 
of which there is exponentially more every day. I think by 
writing, and I write on a computer; the computer also contains the 
Internet, which manufactures express-service context as well as 
overstatement, sociopathy and lameness. In my hot office I was 
starting to look at it abstractly, as a hot thing blowing exhaust. 
I needed to renegotiate my relationship with space and sound and 

Butler is a 1930s neo-Classical hulk. At the front, above 14 
columns, runs a list of writers and thinkers; the last is Vergil, 
and I like that someone long ago took a stand and chose to spell 
it in the Anglicization closer to his real name, not the more 
common “Virgil.” It announces: nonsense not spoken here.

In the late ’80s, I’d been there a lot, studying and working as a 
summer employee. When I turned up at the Library Information 
office last year, there was much clucking about how I’d graduated 
so very long ago that they needed a whole other database to find 
my information. But that’s cool: I am from another time. 

I had come to work but also to tune myself up. So I split the day. 
Some for my bosses, some for me. After I met my deadline, writing 
in the reference room, I walked behind the main desk into the 
stacks. The Columbia library system owns over 10 million volumes; 
1.5 million, humanities and history, live here. I moved around for 
a few hours in the stillness, looking things up, standing up or 
crouching the whole time, purely and almost dopily happy.

I’d forgotten. The Butler stacks are in a different sensory 
category, starting from the threshold: If you’re tall, you bow 
your head as you pass through the low door frame. They form an 
enclosed rectangular prism at the center of Butler — no windows, a 
bit cooler than the rest of the building. Two or three levels of 
the inner stacks can correspond to one floor of the outer library. 
All this reinforces the feeling that the stacks are something 
special: a separate province or a vital inner organ.

Inside there is the deep quiet of protection and near-abandonment. 
You hear the hum of the lights, turned on as needed; that’s it. 
There’s a phone to make outgoing calls on the fifth floor. To me 
the stacks are the most sacred space in the library, yet here 
nobody’s telling you not to talk. You’re on your own. It’s a 
situation for adults.

Unlike the stacks at some other university libraries, Butler’s 
were not built for public consumption. They opened to patrons 
gradually, much later; originally, Butler had a call desk, where 
you’d put in your requests and wait for your numbers to come up.

“That’s why they’re not pretty stacks,” said Karen Green, Butler’s 
librarian for ancient and medieval history and for religion and 
graphic novels. She said it with empathy. Both she and I know that 
they are very beautiful.

I spent a few weeks there in the worst of last June and July, 
grazing around, letting the shelves make the connections for me, 
writing down notes for a book whose thesis grew obscure and 
finally implausible: I was looking up works on plague, fire and 
the Egyptian desert fathers. I learned well, but I felt even 
better. I took in great amounts of information without ever 
becoming fried or irritable. All that organization and nobody 
around — it seemed like trespassing in the history of Western 
learning, with no fear of cops. Not a lot of people spend time in 
the stacks anymore. (Except, as Ms. Green pointed out, around the 
graphic-novel section.) It’s not the current nature of finding 

Doing it the inefficient way, you use the senses. You look at a 
row of spines, imprinted with butch, ultra-legible white or black 
type; your eye takes in more at any time than can be contained on 
a computer screen. You hold the books in your hand and feel the 
weight and size; the typography and the paper talk to you about 
time. A lot of libraries smell nice, but the smell of the Butler 
stacks is a song of organic matter, changing as temperatures do 
through the reaches of a pond. Get yourself near Goffredo 
Casalis’s life’s work on the duchy of Savoy, the Dizionario 
Geografico-Storico-Statistico-Commerciale, published in 27 volumes 
from 1833 to 1854, and breathe in. A fantastic, pre-acidic-paper 
smell: burned caramel, basically. Nobody there but you.

There are 15 floors of stacks with 64 rows of books per floor, 
running about 25 feet each; 6 or 7 shelves in each row. Can you 
actually browse there, find books on your own, faced with the dark 
phalanxes? You can, once you get subject areas in your head. 
Having made enough spot searches, you grasp the logic of each 
floor. There are no signs to help you, only diagrams with codes 
and numbers.

You can also create luck in any given spot: You turn your head to 
the opposing row of books. A different subject area can arise, 
perhaps only partly to do with your areas of interest. This is 
non-link-based browsing. You can discover, instead of being 
endlessly sought.

I’ve already gone back this year: Above 90 degrees was my cue. I 
realize that I am lucky to do this free. If you have no 
affiliation with the school, it will cost you $55 a month. You’d 
pay more to go to the gym. I think it’s a good deal.

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