Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Butler Library through time

Butler Library
Butler Library is the largest of the more than twenty libraries and collections comprising Columbia University Libraries. It has an important number of reading rooms, while the heart of it lies in the stacks consisting in 15 independent floors of nearly 2 million books. It was opened in 1934 as the "South Hall", being renamed in 1946 in honour of Nicholas Murray Butler, president of the University from 1902-1945.

This library is a fantastic place to ramble through idea of passage of time throughout its different spaces. It is a center that remains open every day of the year and 24 hours a day. It is said there is a real Butler Culture, where students tend to stick to their own preferred reading rooms, and entire social networks develop around these after some time. It is also said that during midterms and finals some students virtually camp out in the library, leaving their belongings there.

Butler library is in fact a place where people spend hours and days, picking out favourite places to read or work with their laptops. It implies for many of them passing a number of hours in one single space, certainly experiencing diverse notions of the passage of time. It is quite remarkable that even though it is essentially a quiet space, it is full of motion. People travel in and out, sit in their usual space according to availability, go to the restroom, sit again, unplug the laptop, pack everything, walk and leave by opening the heavy entrance door as a true threshold to the exterior world.

Butler Library reading room.
The library is a whole world by itself, with different environments in which the passage of time is experienced in different ways. For instance, the reading rooms are usually open places with windows, surrounded by bookshelves, shared reading tables and individual reading cubicles, in which there is usually a fair amount of people. Spending several hours in these reading rooms allow perceiving difference in light and shadows from the outside that mark the day’s course. It is a quiet area in which every individual constitute a separate cognitive and experiential unit with little amount of interaction. However, it is possible to notice an intensive dynamic of activity and flowing bodies through space that essentially represents each one’s occupation and particular duties (governed by time).

The Stacks
The stacks are a completely different dimension in which there is no connection with the outside world, and where time passes with no other external reference but the clock. Its 15 levels are mainly filled with dark bookshelves, and a reading station with a shared long table usually in each level. The sensation of time here is given by its hermetic environment, and a distinctive old book smell. In an article from The New York Times Ben Ratliff elaborates an experiential description from this environment: “You hold the books in your hand and feel the weight and size; the typography and the paper talk to you about time. A lot of libraries smell nice, but the smell of the Butler stacks is a song of organic matter… A fantastic, pre-acidic-paper smell: burned caramel, basically. Nobody there but you” (Ratliff 2012).
Marks on main door.
Time has passed and is passing in Butler library, which is expressed through movements of its occupants. Even though some spaces seem sometimes in an abandoned or hermetic state, if determined by minutes or hours, they sure possess a constancy of movement in terms of days, weeks and days. This motion can be most easily observed by patterns of marks and wearing were the flow is intensified. This can be seen right from the beginning in the entrance door. People grab the right side of the door from the outside and inside, leaving a clear area free of bronze oxide from the constant rubbing of hands that polish the surface. Other marks can be seen in the entrance of restrooms.
Slight indentation on black marble stairs.
Detailed view of wear on the edge of black marble steps.
It is curious to notice that in the staircases where people are not usually seen, you can find the most definite trace of movement. This is expressed through a slight indentation in the black marble steps near the rail, getting even closer to the rail when the stairs turn the opposite way toward the next segment. This indentation caused by this constant movement of people, evokes the passage of thousands of steps walking up and down, dragging slightly their shoes and rubbing the black marble steps in a clear motion pattern. Small particles of dust or sand trapped in the shoe grooves act as effective abrasive agents in a constant flow through days, years and decades.

This leads us to different scales of time, in which the immediacy of seconds, minutes and hours, may not reflect long scale movements through time. On the other hand, the immediacy of identifying these long term patterns allows us to recreate an image of this long term passage and perceive oneself as part of this recreation. Suddenly the image arises of breathing bodies moving through the library’s different spaces, dragging their shoes or rubbing their hands in particular areas, creating marks that hold silent testimony of this dynamic through time.


Ratliff, Ben
“Grazing in the Stacks of Academe”. The New York Times. Published: June 26, 2012. Retrieved from the web on February 19, 2013.

“About Butler Library”. Retrieved from the web on February 19, 2013.

“Butler Library - WikiCU, the Columbia University wiki encyclopedia”. Retrieved from the web on February 19, 2013.


mprevit2 said...

Charles I thought you did a great job describing how Butler reflects the passing of time while at the same time articulating how it for students and faculty the environment on the library itself can make it seem almost timeless. I have been one of those students that find themselves spending countless hours in Butler studying for a test. As the hours stretch on it really seems like you have entered a palce outside of time and with the countless books around you all from different time periods and holding theories and thoughts from all of human history it really can feel like time has stopped still. Unfortunately, it hasnt and eventually you get ripped back in when you have to leave for your test.

I thought your pcitures of the staircases and benches were particularly interesting in, as you wrote about, that the marks show the passage of time by being the physical remnants of the movement of students throughout the library. I also thought it was interesting because it establishes a connection between the students of today and those of the past.

The rare manuscript collection is one aspect of Butler worht exploring. Like what Gavin says in his book, the manuscripts are artifacts of times gone by and the present as well. They have had several different identities that have been redefined as they enter a new context. They are at once conveyors of information for their readers, artistic expressions, and connections to the past, among countless others. I think this adds another complex player to Butler's place in time as well as it's timelessness.

James said...

Charles, I enjoyed the evocative language you use in describing the wear patterns in the library and the way it reminds us of our connections. There is something pleasing about remembering how many people must have passed this way before us and how many more will follow. I wonder about the sense of the passage of time in the library now versus 30 years ago when computers and the internet were not available. Are the stacks more anachronistic now because of the internet than they were when our parents and parents' parents were students? Does the hermetic feel you describe exist because of a lack of use or is it the way Butler has "always" felt? What will Butler be like in another 30 years?