Journey Beyond The Center Of The ‘Stacks’

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Science majors got their own libraries. These contained the specialized journals of their respective fields. Much smaller than expansive University-wide libraries, they offered cozier confines, their size based on the number of students majoring in that subject.

Yale’s Astronomy Library was also probably the smallest library on campus. I was the only Astronomy & Physics major in my class. (Back in my day, the only way you could major in astronomy was to double major in physics. It was a lot of classes, with precious little room for elective courses like philosophy, literature, history, and, well, just about everything else.)

My virtually personal reference room was a treasure trove of ancient knowledge. And by ‘ancient’ I mean the actual data is centuries old. Astronomy, for the most part, collects light data from distant stars, galaxies, and nebulae. The objects responsible for these traveling photons lie lightyears distant, sometimes thousands of light years away.

While a light year represents a measure of distance, it also tells you how long ago the source originally emitted that light. For example, the nearest start (Proxima Centauri) is a little more than 4 light years away. The light we see from that star today is therefore a little more than 4 years old. Likewise, the light you see from Antares in the constellation Scorpio, the very bright reddish star you see above the summer horizon, predates the Magna Carta.

Incidentally, in case you’re curious, the farthest star you can see with the unaided eye is 16,308 light years away. It’s in the circumpolar (which means we can see it all year) constellation Cassiopeia. Don’t bother looking for it, though. The skies here are too bright.

The other aspect of “ancient,” though isn’t that old, it only seems that old. I’m talking about the facility itself. It was probably new at some point (I’m guessing the 1950s, maybe mid-60s). When I first stepped into its brightly lit interior in 1978 it looked dated.

Located in a building called “J.W. Gibbs” (which looked like the kind of building a 1950s sci-fi artist would have drawn), the library itself was housed in the far end of the equally typical sci-fi-ish hallway (you know, the dimly lit one with antiseptic walls and solid color doors you swear would swoosh! open like on Star Trek.)

My first experience there definitely awed me. My assignment for the very first Astronomy class I took (“Observational Astronomy”) had me trek to the library. It was not quite a light year away, but it was on the other side of campus (and uphill both ways!). I had to dig through old plates of negatives to determine stellar motions.

Yeah, I know. That sounds boring to you. But to the 18-year-old me, it was a dream come true. (Go ahead, call me a geek. I was a proud nerd and loving every minute of it.)

Honestly, I don’t remember going to the “real” library much. My classmates would go to “Cross Campus Library” – a futuristic underground labyrinth complete with private study carrels and the usual kind of library bookshelves you’d normally find in your favorite local library.

Cross Campus also had something else: a snack center, complete with one of those new-fangled (remember, this was 1978) kitchen appliances called a microwave oven. This device was the reason for most of my visits to that library.

No, it wasn’t to make “microwave popcorn.” (The nation was enthralled in its Orville Redenbacher Phase at that point. Microwave popcorn, though invented in 1947, didn’t achieve mass market popularity until the 1980s.)

Rather, I would walk through the wintry weather to reheat the lasagna my mother included in her periodic care packages. (These were homemade, so it really was her lasagna.)

Funny story about that. The Cross Campus snack center was located within the bowels of the library. You had to go through a security check to enter or exit that library. When I was carrying out my lasagna in a big cardboard box, the security guard, suspecting I was stealing books, asked me what I had in the box.

“Lasagna,” I snapped back.

He rolled his eyes in skepticism. Then he opened the box and became a believer.

The real library story had to wait until senior year. That’s the moment when a couple of elective classes took me to Sterling Memorial Library, Yale’s main library. Supposedly connected to Cross Campus via underground tunnels (I never traveled this route, but I trust the others that say they did). It’s seven story tower contains 16 levels of stacks.

You must understand this. Ever since I was a young boy, my mother not only taught me to appreciate the sweet taste of homemade lasagna, but she also impressed upon me the glory of libraries. We’d visit them wherever we traveled. Now you know why I was so at home in the Astronomy Library.

But when I (finally) stepped foot into Sterling Memorial Library, I felt like Dorothy in Oz, except I had no desire to go home. In fact, there was one section in particular that I wanted to bring home with me. Here’s the story of what got me there.

Taking a rare non-science course, the professor gave us our assignment. We were to present a recommendation to the leader who was about to make a historical decision. But – and here’s the twist – it had to be from a point of view contemporary to the time the decision was made. In other words, we could not use any information that was unknown at the time, we had to mimic how then current decision makers would be thinking, and, in general, we were required to become method actors.

The critical question was how does one travel back in time?

That’s when I discovered the magazine stacks in Sterling Memorial Library. Imagine entering a closet and turning left to find a never-ending narrow alcove containing nothing but musty old bound magazines encased in wrought iron mesh cages. There, I found my time period (August of 1945 – I was writing about the decision to drop the atomic bomb to end World War II) and leafed through the pages.

Something happened at that moment. I wasn’t only reading the current reporting on the subject. I was also scanning the ads, the editorials, the letters to the editor, and taking in how current events had shaped the writing of all other articles.

These magazine pages revealed a collage of context you could not possibly obtain from merely reading the single relevant article you were looking for. Their placement, format, and juxtaposition with all the other content told a much fuller story.

In those hours, I came to love the magazine stacks. I would visit them without an assignment just for fun. I’d pick a week or month or event and read all the different magazines’ takes on the topic. To repeat, I did this just for fun. It was like going down a rabbit hole just to see what you could find.

And I dreamed that, one day, I would be able to recreate that same feeling in my own library. I saved every newsweekly, science journal, in fact, every magazine I ever subscribed to.

I am happy to report Providence has blessed me with the discipline to realize, albeit on a much smaller scale, this very dream.

Now for the rest of the story…

Yale razed the J.W. Gibbs building to build a more modern science building. In the process, the astronomy department was relocated to some random Victorian-Era homes at the bottom of the Science Hill. I have yet to know what happened to the library.

It gets worse.

Several years ago, when travelling to New Haven, I took my usual diversion into the magazine stacks. What I discovered horrified me. The magazines had all been purged. “Why?” I asked the librarian. “Because all the articles are digitized now for easy retrieval,” he said.

Just like that, decades of immeasurable context had been evaporated. Students today can no longer discover what I had once found. The hidden story within the pages of stories is forever gone.

For them.

For me, I can continue to tilt at technology’s windmills.

I have my own stacks.

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