21 February 2009

the Hayden Library basement at MIT

I've been spending a lot of time in the Hayden Library at MIT, with frequent visits to basement where the books on books are. Usually, I hate basement libraries, with the books shoved in some dark, damp corner with cement floors, metal shelves and all the pipes exposed. I like to study surrounded by happy, healthy books that roam free in the sunlight, mingle with people, get left in crooked stacks on tables or in chairs. Basement libraries, though, tend to look like prisons or cages; retrieving the books is like descending into the hold of a ship, unchaining the book from its metal shelving, liberating it temporarily to see sunlight -- only to have it brought right back down when you're done with it. Kind of like the dog in Umberto Eco's L'isola del giorno prima, kept in a dark room, its wound salted daily so the ship could communicate with distant lands.

The more I visit the Hayden basement, though, the more I've come to appreciate it, even love it. Most of it is taken up with stacks of periodicals bound in bright colors, creating solid blocks of books. The titles are pure MIT -- plasma chemistry, the polymer bulletin -- and the stacks are delightfully irregular, even running into a random 4-foot cinderblock wall at one point. I love the tension between the basement's exposed chaos and the tightly-bound order of the periodicals, all the differences of the flimsy originals homogenized into a thick, bright vinyl cover; and I love the drawers full of maps, mundanely labeled "WORLD." Hell, I've even come to like how the fourescent bulbs make the covers glow.

Here's a few photos I took yesterday, with apologies for the bad focus. I'm an enthusiastic but horrible photographer; I just point and click.


moria said...

Looks like another university library I know too well. Ugly, cinderblocky, dark, dank, badly catalogued and organized (random sections on the third and fourth floors are in Dewey, despite LoC call numbers in the cat; half the reference material is in specialized rooms, also unindicated by the cat). Not a decent working space in sight. And yet: open stacks, full of books.

I submit that it is not possible to truly dislike a library - well, not possible for you or for me, or for anyone who is both passionate about her work and invested in information technology systems. At the crumbling, resourceless British red-brick university where I did my M.A., I tried very hard to hate the library. It seldom had what I wanted; it was intensely damp; there were drafts in the rare book room; the staff were mainly rude and incompetent... and yet, and yet, and yet. Open stacks and rows of books.

Time plus library inevitably equals love.

Whitney said...

So true...

There's something wonderful, though, about these bright colors glowing in a dank basement. Very.. radioactive, in a way. Like some other things you might find glowing in dark corners of MIT.

If you really want to go crazy, head to Hopkins, where you have to descend four levels IN to the ground to find literature. No wonder all the grad students are translucent.