(Mis)adventures in the Library

Today I went to the University Library.  It is a great thing, working at a University and having borrowing access to its library.  Since I finished my MA I have not been able to face taking advantage of this situation, except on one occaision on behalf of a friend.  Today however, there were books I really wanted to go and get.  I wandered off across campus enjoying the sunshine and warmth not realising that I was venturing in to the unknown.  I have been associated with the University of Sussex for over 10 years now and the library is usually one of its most familiar and comforting places for me.  As an undergraduate studying an interdiscplinary degree programme I spent vast amounts of time in the library and often felt more at home there than any of the various teaching buildings I visited.  Today I walked in to the library to be confronted with the fact that the layout had changed beyond recognition.  This was quite upsetting; I forget just how much like home some parts of the campus feel to me nowadays.  The layout of the entrance to the library has already undergone some changes over the last year, but today I was completely thrown.  Somehow the place felt completely different and I felt a tug of loss.  It no longer felt comfortable and familiar, instead it was alien and briskly business like.  I didn’t feel that it belonged to me at all any more, not even in just a little way and I realised, with a pang, how sad that was.  I hadn’t considered just how important the unchanging face of the library had become to me.  I just expected it to always be there in the same form.  Naive I know, but that is what I had come to expect.

This made my next mission, my task to find the shelf marks I needed, considerably more difficult.  Before today I knew where to find almost all the kinds of books I would ordinarily be searching for.  I even had a sense, through processes of elimination, where the other shelf marks were likely to be found.  Not today.  I even had to search to find a floor plan – unthinkable!  As I consulted the plan I noted that the shelf mark I particularly wanted (QE) was listed as being in the North Basement.  These words inspired a mild feeling of dread within me.  I had no idea where the North Basement was.  In previous days it was a part of the library only accessible by staff with at least 24 hours notice of which resource you wished to consult.  I had always given up on resources that could only be found in this section of the library and I was slightly persuaded that it was indeed a mythical place.  A place of legend and whispered story.  I was not at all sure I liked the idea of needing to find my way there.  I looked so bewildered that a staff member stopped to ask me for help.  I usually wave away all offered of assistance, but I was so unsettled that I asked if he could tell me how to get to the North Basement.

As it turned out there were very clear directions on the walls to show me the way.  That was fine, but traversing a part of the library I have never seen before seriously added to my feelings of displacement.  I had to go down several enclosed flights of steps and met almost no one else on the way there.  At one point I was going down steps surrounded by windows with workmen on the other side busy with the improvements that were causing so much disruption to the familiarity of the building.  They loomed up above me as I continued down the steps making the environment feel strangely hostile.  It was all very odd and had something of the feeling of the beginning of a horror movie about it.  Real quiet, rather than the quiet of people trying to be quiet, punctuated by the odd sound of drilling or works being carried out was somewhat unnerving. I had a growing, though mild, sense of claustrophobia as I ventured down.

Eventually I made it down to the North Basement and, to my absolute discomfort, I was confronted with a low ceilinged room with a series of moving shelves, 2 rows deep with an aisle between the front and back row.  Each shelf was metal, extended right to the ceiling and had a large wheel on the front of it.  I grasped immediately that the wheel moved the shelf from right to left, meaning the shelves (and many of them were) could be wheeled in close proximity to one another to save space.  I usually keep my imagination more in check than this, but my first thought was of what would happen if I were to somehow get trapped between two of the shelves as they moved inexorably closer to one another.  An poor Indiana Jones style scenario played out in my head briefly, sadly it did not end with me escaping and looking heroic.  I gave myself time to note that at least being crushed by books had some noble sentiment about it.  Then I realised that I would have to walk through a gap between shelves in the first row to get to my target which was the second row.  Then I would have to actually use one of the wheels to access the shelf I wanted.  On top of my ridiculous worries about my vulnerability, I had an irrational fear of breaking the mechanism and had to look to see if there were instructions on how to use it.

Eventually I completed my mission, exited the strange basement room with its unrelentingly bright flourescent tubes and strange shelving machinery that inspired a weak kind of dread within me.  I was quite surprised at myself, I know I can be whimsical but I am used to being less inclined to such flights of fantasy when I am at work.  It did make for an interesting 20 minutes or so however and I also managed to pick up the books I wanted.  Sadly their subject matter is considerably less interesting than my imagined near death experience and feelings of mild chilling doubt about the enterprise of seeking the books out.  If only every lunch break could be as exciting!  I had the feeling of escaping as some kind of library warrior as I ventured back out, blinking, into the sunshine to sit and read.


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