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July 26, 2011

Wild Libraries I have known: The John Hay Library

The lovely Julia Zarankin goes looking for love in the stacks of Brown University’s John Hay Library, and finds it!

I walked into the John Hay Library without knowing anything about it. I was a freshman in college, desperately searching for a part time job and convinced that a library job would increase my likelihood of finding a boyfriend (which high school had not afforded). I imagined scenarios where the elusive boy and I would meet at the circulation desk, debate philosophical problems and run off into the stacks together to kiss passionately (preferably next to collected works by Flaubert, on whom I had a slight, inexplicable crush). And finally, life would be worth living.

I ended up getting a job at Brown University’s Rare Book library – the John Hay Library – where I was one of three female work-study students and worked with a group of middle-aged female librarians. The boyfriend I had imagined meeting was nowhere to be found.

Instead, I discovered books and fell in love with their smell, their feel, their inscriptions, and their histories. I had always been a reader, but before working at the Hay, I never stopped to consider the book as a physical and historical object. Books had merely been containers of information; now they were transforming into living beings. (I did end up meeting that elusive boyfriend, but it didn’t happen in a library, and in the end he didn’t really make life worth living, not to mention that our philosophical discussions never quite got off the ground; the whole thing was slightly underwhelming, but I never would have believed that as an 18-year-old.)

I worked at the reception desk at the John Hay Library for seven hours every Monday and Friday of my freshman year. My job should have been boring and repetitive, but wasn’t: patrons arrived, I helped them fill out request forms, escorted them into the (locked!) reading room, ensured that they had nothing but a pencil and notebook in their possession, entered the request form information into a meticulous log, asked permission to search for the requested book in the stacks, returned with said book, delivered it to the patron and repeated the process.

Sometimes, patrons came to me with research questions and I loved the job for the random conversations and chance encounters. Once, I helped a patron amass bibliographical citations for an art project about vomit in 18th century medical literature. She was a RISD student (the art school down the street) and wore a green boa wrapped around her neck. She returned months later, to thank me for my help, but I never did see her art project. The library also housed a remarkable American literature collection, a medical history collection (hence the vomit-book quest), a military collection replete with toy soldiers, an occult collection, along with all sorts of magician-paraphernalia from the ages, and a Playboy collection, among other things.

I fell in love with the library mainly for the magic I discovered in the stacks. My favorite task was emptying the returns cart and replacing all the books in their proper place. This involved taking a service elevator down into the depths of the library (most of the floors were below ground, and several degrees colder); the floors were dark, with a musty smell I quickly developed affection for, and I would walk through the stacks, turning the lights on one by one. It was there, in the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays that I found first editions of Arthur Miller, H.D., e.e. cummings, Wallace Stevens. I would linger an extra ten minutes among the stacks whose layout I had memorized, opening volumes of poetry, reading inscriptions, learning the cardinal points of a literary map I was only beginning to put together in my own mind.

The Hay plunged me into a world where books mattered; every detail of their existence,  health and well-being was of utmost importance. Books at the Hay were alive, and I was intoxicated.

4 thoughts on “Wild Libraries I have known: The John Hay Library”

  1. Robin Spano says:

    Well I guess if you can’t get laid, there’s always books. Kidding – nice post Julia!

    1. Kerry says:

      “Well I guess if you can’t get laid, there’s always books.” Oh, it’s true! I’m living proof.

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