Butler Nostalgia in the New York Times

| July 24, 2012

Perhaps you saw this article published last month in The New York Times, but in case you didn’t, Ben Ratliff wrote a lovely piece about the serenity (or antiquity) of pursuing books at Columbia’s Butler Library. Posed as a sort of love letter to the Butler stacks, Ratliff’ writes of “renegotiating” his “relationship with space and sound and information” in the stacks, “the stillness capital of [his] imagination.”

If you haven’t crawled back behind the circulation desk to where the stacks live to retrieve a book at Butler, you simply aren’t living–yet. The first time I ventured back there I have to admit I felt uneasy, almost as though I was stepping through a time travel shaft (a perhaps accurate sensation), or someone else’s grandmother’s attic. There’s something Harry Potterish about the Butler stacks, though of course they were built long before Harry was a figment of his creator’s imagination. As Ratliff describes:

The Butler stacks are in a different sensory category, starting from the threshold: If you’re tall, you bow your head as you pass through the low door frame. They form an enclosed rectangular prism at the center of Butler — no windows, a bit cooler than the rest of the building. Two or three levels of the inner stacks can correspond to one floor of the outer library. All this reinforces the feeling that the stacks are something special: a separate province or a vital inner organ.

And indeed, one could spend days back there (if you didn’t need food or light or human contact); there are desks with lamps lurking deep in that vital inner organ, tucked away as though existing in an alternate universe. To make matters more subterranean, Butler employs both LCC and DDC cataloging systems in alternating stacks (there’s a key chart detailing where to find books in each system). It’s a skill set one picks up quickly; on my second venture there I found myself snaking around the two-floors-per-one-floor like an aged pro.

I recommend it, if not as a way to spend an over-hot summer day for fun, then certainly as a place to do your work. Perhaps the next time I’m there I’ll see music writer Ben Ratliff, though without his winter hat I don’t know that I’d recognize him.

(Ben Ratliff, New York Times)