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December 16, 2010

Wild Libraries I have known: EJ Pratt Library

I wish I had a picture of the EJ Pratt Reading Room pre-2001, when the carpets were yellow and the ceilings were high, and I knew every single person at work at every row of tables, because it was Saturday night, and this was UofT. About every twenty minutes, I’d go to the bathroom, and talk to someone different in there about whoever we were in unrequited love with, and how “Colourblind” by Counting Crows was a really good song. You could sign out a laptop computer from the circulation desk, and they were always infected with viruses.

Never, ever has there been a library I have known like I’ve known the EJ Pratt Library at Victoria College at UofT. I worked there as a student assistant from 1999-2002, back when I was doing my undergrad and thought wearing tie dye was a good idea. On at least two occasions, I snogged somebody in the stacks. (That I can write the previous sentence is the greatest accomplishment in my life to date.) I remember working my Saturday morning shifts hungover and wearing pajama pants, I remember how there was always a friend to talk to when I was working at the circulation desk (and how then I always got in trouble), I remember perverts on the internet, the woman with no limbs and her blind husband (and how they used to come in and sleep the day away, and students would complain because they smelled.)

The first year I worked at the EJ Pratt Library, the building was glorious in its circa 1961 decor. We loved it. The elevator needed a key to work, so we used to transport the books up and down in a dumbwaiter. There was a wall of card catalogues. The reading room stretched on forever. There was a distinct absence of comfortable chairs, and some of us liked it that way. We didn’t have access to the internet at the circ desk, and I have no idea now how we passed the time.

The second year, the library was under renovations, and housed in a temporary location. The new circ desk had the internet, if you happened to be lucky enough to get the good chair. Sometimes I worked in a room with a gorgeous view of the sun setting over the Royal Ontario Museum, and the pervert on the internet would come in, but I was never sure about how to approach him. I remember I was working the night Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman broke up, and I found the news particularly shocking.

The next year, the library was home again, but the home was completely different. To be honest, I can only remember tiny details of its previous incarnation, so realized was its future self. The reading room was smaller and less satisfying, but there were carrels with doors that shut, and then eventually they had to take the doors off due to bad behaviour. The fresh new wood of the carrels and study tables proved tempting for artistic sensibilities, and cartoon penises began to be ubiquitous, and sometimes they were carved in, so never mind the scrubbing. But. The library was wonderful. The east wall on the second floor had a view of the Lester B Pearson Garden of Peace and Understanding, and outlets all along the wall so you could plug in (because everyone had their own laptop by then). Downstairs, there was a student lounge, that you could eat in and everything, and there was even a snack machine– this was controversial. We loved the orange wall. We loved the natural light. We also loved that all the circ stations had internet access now.

I also loved helping to unpack in the weeks before the “new” library opened, the downstairs stacks with a view of Queens Park turning into autumn. I also got to go down to the sub-basement and help put away special collections, the Canadiana, Coleridge’s Library, and Virginia Woolf collections (and yes, my life is richer not just for snogs in stacks, but because I have touched books that Virginia Woolf touched, and even wrote her name in). The EJ Pratt sub-basement is the most magical place in the world, even more so than its reading room pre-2001.

I returned to the library in 2005, now weaned of tie-dye, newly married, and enrolled in graduate school. It felt wonderful to come home again, but something had changed while I was gone– no longer were there constantly friends to gossip with at the circ desk, and the students had become younger (and actually they had, Ontario cutting out the fifth year of high school, but I’m sure that wasn’t all of it). Suddenly all the tasks I’d detested as an undergraduate student assistant become much coveted– I loved shelf-reading, going through the stacks book-by-book and finding any that had been filed out of place. It was a rescue operation! Moreover, what treasures did I find while thumbing through much of that entire library. For a short while I also had fun keeping track of the books being held by sleeping people, though that wasn’t part of my job description. I loved shelving– I could have shelved for hours. Part of this because I could go off to the stacks, and no one would care if I didn’t return for ages. I also think having  had a real job in the meantime had changed my attitude somewhat. (Before I’d been much too busy wearing pajamas, and talking about who’d had sex with who the night before in the Burwash quad.)

I love the EJ Pratt Library. I’ve been back many times since graduating (again), and it’s always a little bit like coming home. I return for its book sale annually. I was excited to read in the most recent alumni magazine that there is a new “reading garden” near the entrance, and I think it will be deserving of a field trip come spring. I’ll bring Harriet on a sunny day, then we’ll hang out for a while in the quad, the trees keeping the sounds of the city at bay, and all the years I’ve ever known in that place will culminate in yet another singular magical moment.

Note: Pratt Library makes an appearance in Carrie Snyder’s Hair Hat. I’d be interested to know of any other literary places where it’s turned up.

3 thoughts on “Wild Libraries I have known: EJ Pratt Library”

  1. K says:

    I remember how we passed the time at the circ desk in the pre-reno days – it was spent erasing all those pencilled comments in the books. Excellent accounting of the beloved Pratt. Do you remember the belcher?

    1. Kerry says:

      Oh, I forgot about the erasing, and how I always got covered in dust. And yes, I remember the belcher. I wish I didn’t.

  2. Erica says:

    Oh, Kerry. I love this post. It brought up all of my own, somtimes similar, memories. I don’t know if you remember this, but I had just broken up with a boyfriend and was a bit devastated and I ran into you in the temporary Pratt and told you about it. (You were very sympathetic and funny) I was there having just e-mailed Lorraine who was abroad in France at the time to tell her too. When I think back on this, I always connect to the sharing of the story in that space. It must be something about the temporary library and the temporary relationship that link the two moments in my head, and that sense of a universe contained there.

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