My room at college was in a mixed-use building that included offices and student rooms, and was usually quiet, except for times like once after finals when we threw an old sofa three floors down a stairwell. It exploded in a cloud of dust in the lobby. But I was drawn to the university library.
The 16-story creamy limestone book stack tower, built in the late 1920s, had vertical lines of windows in “girder Gothic” style. With its sprawling wings and courtyards, it occupied almost an entire city block.
Evenings, I often read in the reserve reading room. Its long tables decked with reading lamps were fully occupied most weeknights. Sometimes friends read together. Once, when one of them went to the restroom, his friends hid his books. There was some commotion when he came back.
The library closed at midnight, when only a couple of students were left, talking about socialized medicine and a possible 100-year war with China.
The main reading room was a high, vast space housing long, broad tables and chairs. The high ceiling disappeared in shadow. Tall windows checkered with stained glass panes let in a mellow afternoon light. The wide oak tables insured each reader a degree of privacy. The ends of the room were lost in the distance.
One day an older woman, a scholar in a grey suit, sat down opposite me, and began to arrange her books. I was puzzled; my college had no female faculty. One by one the English department professors came in and introduced themselves — all tweeds and charm. I learned later that she was Marjorie Hope Nicholson, the first woman professor at an Ivy League university, in this case Columbia.
Once, in a remote corner of the room, I came upon an older student. His books bore the telltale covers of the principal rival school! He smiled crazily, squirmed in his seat, seemed to think that his presence was either a provocation or a great joke. He was visiting for a day. Why should he change his book covers for just one day?
Another day, a youngish heavyset man in a suit with a round, smiling face and a spring in his gait came in from the main desk and consulted a volume. He left, then came back and consulted another volume. This happened five or six times. I guessed he was a Milton scholar.
One Saturday morning, reserve was practically empty. I saw a rail-thin female grad student turn around and glare into silence a couple of boorish, noisy undergraduates. The grad students considered us an infantile lot.
There was the magazine room, a cozier place to read. The problem was the magazines! I found an issue of the Illustrated London News, of August 1914. There were dozens of photos of all the English officers killed during the first weeks of the war — a seemingly endless list! Suddenly I wanted to study that, instead of my assignment. Should I read history instead of English?
There was another room across from reserve, just as large but dark, and full of overstuffed easy chairs and sofas. At the far end of the room was a huge marble fireplace. There were also niches with small study tables and chairs. If you sat in the easy chairs or sofas, you would fall asleep. Even in the niches, seated at a table, odds are you would fall asleep: It was that kind of room.
Late one winter day, I watched an older scholar load books into his worn leather bag. Volume after volume went into the depths of his bag. Could I read all that? I wondered. Did I want to be a scholar? One by one, he had to unload all those books for inspection before he could leave the building.
Another time, in the newspaper room, I found the inner court. The big tower was not solid; there was this vast empty space, almost as deep as the building was high! I realized that all such buildings had to have an open core, for ventilation.
The clerks in the newspaper room told me they looked forward to getting their “S.S.” degrees.
Between stretches of reading, I walked the long corridors. There were rare print and rare book exhibits in glass cases in some halls, and up on the walls and pillars were sculptures: priests and peasants, merchants and sailors, Indians and soldiers.
At night after the students left, the library stood alone among the stars.
Ed Rossmann lives in Aurora and has been an educator most of his life, including 17 years in high school.