Blogs > Cliopatria > Transatlantic comparisons: Libraries

Dec 3, 2007 1:38 am

Transatlantic comparisons: Libraries

I've had some opportunity in the last few weeks to talk with people who've had experiences in academe on both sides of the Atlantic pond; the differences seem, to me, extraordinary. Naturally, and perhaps unsurprisingly for those of you familiar with my blog, my first questions are usually about the libraries. Coming from a background of largely Malaysian and Singaporean libraries, my encounter with Cambridge's University Library was something of a messianic experience. I recall wandering about in its cramped, narrow spaces with my neck constantly craned, staring rapturously at the seemingly endless shelves of books fanning out into the North and South wings and fronts -- six floors thereof! -- the eclectic rooms of rare books, manuscripts, reading rooms, and the charming way in which books seemed to spill over onto every available surface, usurping windowsills, floorspace and deskspace with equal abandon.

And so I never gave much thought to what scholars I now know from across the Atlantic have called its, and I quote,"sordid bureaucracy that is in every way designed to extinguish all my ability and indeed desire to pursue any modicum of scholarly research." Some observations follow.

There is the 10-book, eight-week borrowing limit for graduate students. (To me, that is an enormously munificent endowment; to e.g. the Widener Library clientele, as I now appreciate, it must seem a little like academic strangulation).

There is the somewhat idiosyncratic classification system that groups books by size rather than by topic or subject area. In a library that holds potentially every book in publication, having open shelves sorted topically would yield a kind of browsable cross-section of scholarship on a particular field, so it's rather a tragedy that they are sorted to maximize space, rather than to facilitate research.

There is the bizarre practice of being able to reserve books without actually checking them out of the library. This is achieved by placing a slip of paper with your name on it into the book, and leaving it anywhere in the library, with the result that the book shows up on the catalogue as being available to borrow, but that upon climbing six flights of stairs and negotiating through the shelves of labyrinthine call numbers, it is, actually, nowhere to be found.

There is the tea room, which asserts its premium on basically being the only place to get hot food for about half a mile in every direction, by jacking up its prices to unconscionable and wholly unwarranted proportions.

And then there is the breathtakingly arcane distribution of books amongst not one but over sixty libraries in Cambridge -- a result of the inveterate collegiate system, which does, I admit, have its occasional charms. Most departmental libraries have borrowing periods of two weeks -- often less, if you are trying to borrow outside your department. The Seeley Historical Library has a lavish borrowing period of one day. You can only borrow from your own college library; if you are a historian and your college happens to own an exceedingly exemplary geography collection, tough luck. Trying to read books in other college's libraries is a Herculean task: it involves emailing the librarian of said college library, naming the book sought (which cannot exist in any other library in Cambridge in order to warrant your necessary perusal of their facilities), being escorted (frogmarched) into the library and provided with the hallowed book and a table to take notes on. Borrowing is, of course, not allowed.

Having fashioned this snapshot of Cambridge's library system out of the many tirades I have been subjected to, I must stress again that in comparison to, say, my country's libraries, Cambridge is positively utopian, and I have mostly taken these quaint and arcane practices in my stride. I adored the UL when I came to Cambridge, and still do; and as readers of my Bookporn will know, I treasure the many wonderful and eclectic libraries that have been bred out of our recondite collegiate system. But I now dread the day that I am granted time at a good American university library to do some research; for, from what I have heard from my interlocutors, it will be a terrifyingly wonderful experience. What if returning to Cambridge afterwards will be like being expelled from Eden? How shall I regain my innocence??

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Jeff Vanke - 12/3/2007

Cambridge libraries sound more accessible than their Continental European counterparts. There, university libraries often, even usually, have a closed stacks system. Those libraries tend to be somewhat more centralized than it sounds like Cambridge is, but not entirely.

(Nor, I might add, is Harvard entirely centralized. Though Widener usually has at least one copy of something, it sometimes does not, or its copy is checked out and another can be found in a different Harvard library.)

Rachel Leow - 12/3/2007

I think in large part it has to do with catering to the crazily intense undergraduate tripos system, which demands an essay a week from fairly large clusters of people all moving through their module syllabi at more or less the same time. Access to books and quick turnover is vital -- which is sad, because especially in a university like Cambridge all the real research is being done at graduate level and above, & you think they might be a little more encouraging on that front.

Jeremy Young - 12/3/2007

Yeah, my library at IU is definitely a lot better than what you're describing. We have no limit on the number of books we can check out, and we can get books from anywhere in the Indiana system -- or, through interlibrary loan, nearly anywhere in the country -- delivered to us within a matter of days.

I have my problems with the IU library -- their collection of American newspapers, for instance, is very weak for a library of their caliber -- but they don't have half the issues yours seems to have.

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