Now that the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is turning 50 years old, it’s time we all start making use of it.
Before last week, I had visited the Beinecke a whopping two times. I entered the library once during my Bulldog Days last year and once during Parent’s Weekend this year. All I can recall about the library from those trips is the fact that it houses the Gutenberg Bible and John J. Audubon’s “Birds of America.” After my first two trips, I was convinced that it should be called Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Museum. I got the sense that I could look at the books, but not touch. I didn’t see how I could use the resources there for practical purposes.
Whenever I decide it is time to go study at a library, Beinecke is nowhere on my radar. Bass Library, Sterling Memorial Library and even the Law School Library are much more apparent in their accessibility. Those are the places a Yalie can expect to see her peers.
The public exhibition areas of the Beinecke are scattered with the occasional stragglers stepping in to take a look at rare pieces that have been put on permanent display. But otherwise, few people seem to spend time there. The Beinecke does have comfy sofa seats on the second floor for anyone hoping to use it as a study space — but they seem to go hours without any use.
The News has reported that the Beinecke staff is trying to make the library more of a relevant, well-utilized space on campus. Yet I cannot think of anything that has called my attention toward the Beinecke during the two months that I have been on campus.
But it not entirely up to the library staff to make the Beinecke a more accessible space —undergraduates have to play a role in that task too. Many Yalies seem to have a stigma toward the Beinecke, considering it a musky, restricted place that does not offer much practical use to students. Even though it is right in the center of campus, we treat it as though it were distant and removed.
The stigma might be due in part to the heavy security enforced at the Beinecke. During my recent visit there, I was shocked by the bureaucratic system that I had to pass through just to take a peek at the reading room. There was a security guard at the front of the library, another stationed on the first floor and the first thing you see when you go down the stairs is a third guard staring straight at you.
Having seen the second floor and the public display areas before, I was more interested to learn about how I could actually see one of the books behind the glass. But when I expressed my hopes to the guard, I was told that was just not possible at the time. She told me the process to see a book in the reading room includes pre-registering as a researcher, describing your intentions for using the reading materials and describing the research you are conducting. After I had promised to do no more than walk downstairs and stay behind the glass doors, the guard at the front allowed me to glance into the reading room.
Going through that experience, I could see why so many undergraduates think of the Beinecke as an inaccessible space. It made me question why the library insists on such heavy security—and when I dug a little deeper, I began to understand the bureaucracy.
In 2005, art dealer E. Forbes Smiley III was caught cutting pages out of Beinecke materials while visiting the library. After finding a knife blade on the floor of the reading room, guards began an investigation that eventually led them to Smiley — they discovered that he had stolen several rare maps, including a particularly valuable 1614 map drawn by the founder of Virginia’s Jamestown colony, Captain John Smith.
Knowing that story made me more sympathetic toward the guards I encountered at the Beinecke. Their hands are tied — the multiple levels of security are only there in order to ensure that all materials are kept safe and to avoid situations similar to the 2005 incident.
Rather than expecting the Beinecke staff to draw us in, undergraduates should actively seek out the valuable resources available there. The security is just a minor hurdle, and it’s there to make sure we can continue to enjoy the rare materials for decades to come.
Zunaira Arshad is a freshman in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.