At the center of Yale University, there towers a proud King. He occupies a sprawling 122,500 square-foot throne. His emerald carpet stretches across an entire field. Thousands of humble subjects come by each day, honored by his presence.
Welcome to the library.
The Sterling Memorial Library, to be exact. The carpet is the beautiful quadrangle of lush grass known as Cross Campus. The subjects are none other than people like you, visitors who just can’t stop gawking. Students passing by in a hurry, late to their 2:30 p.m. seminars, can still spare a second or two to admire its Majesty. Laid-back tourists snap endless photographs.
The King, with obliviousness affordable only to the truly elite, settled on his throne in the opening years of the Great Depression, in 1931. The 16-story edifice slices through the sky, the height a marker of pride. The flowing, milky white of the stone bricks has eroded with time, so that some have taken on different shades of colors, so that the library appears built of piano keys, or maybe wooden blocks — an image somehow sage in its oddity. The institution resides on an elevated rectangular platform, an indicator of prestige. A façade juts out of the core tower, welcoming you to the house of knowledge. A gargantuan mullion of stained glass looms over the entrance.
You step into 16th-century Europe. Silence suddenly reigns. It is violated only by the sounds of your steps, each of which echo off the 45-foot-high vaulted ceiling above. A massive Gothic nave stretches out before you. The soft glow of the golden lamps mounted on the thick limestone pillars soothes you. Pointed archways lead you to the reading rooms, where ardent worshippers study their holy books. At the very end of the cathedral rises the divine altar …
Welcome to the library.
The worshippers are students, their scripture Plato. The altar is but a circulation desk, populated by computers and printers. The clergy are librarians assisting their clients: a stressed undergraduate returning a book 12 days overdue; a tourist asking about the identity of James Gamble Rogers; a security guard sleepily checking the bags of the departing, lest they be carried by thieving sinners.
You feel a certain weight, a palpable academic severity. Sculpted heads of historical figures peer out at you from the entryway of the Irving Gilmore Music library. Their stone eyes do not move, but they do judge—are you worthy of this hallowed hall? You gaze at the grandiose fresco at the altar-like circulation desk, humbled by the extraordinary historical legacy embodied by the chamber.
This is when you realize that you haven’t yet seen the Library.
You have not yet bathed in its holy water. Greatness lies beyond, behind the altar. Heart throbbing, you stroll through the door to the inside.
You step into a run-down wardrobe. The musky scent of parched manuscripts invades your nostrils. The room is cramped and the colors are flat. A long aisle stretches before you, devoid of verdant grass but carpeted with aggressively drab tiles. It is flanked on both sides by dozens of shelves, themselves nothing but withered steel bars attached to ink-black platforms, their wrinkling paint randomly chipped. The cramped compartment that holds the stairs and the elevators is a dreary brown. A dingy Mac sits on a desk besides it, open on the ever-loading Yale Library catalog page. An eerie quietude permeates the chamber, disturbed only by the steady hum of the air conditioner by the elevator.
Welcome to the actual library.
Just the first floor, you tell yourself. The others will be better. You soon discover, however, that the floors don’t really change. The first floor is the second, the second the third, the third the fourth and so on. Each is arranged in the same predictable pattern, with the same mundane colors. The unnerving quiet is everywhere, reminding you of its presence with every person you don’t see and every voice you don’t hear. The only signs you are on a new floor come from the changing plaques extruding from the bookshelves, titled with such incomprehensible gibberish as “Cb36-Cs5” and “Hb85-Hd28,” as well as the increasingly wide view of New Haven visible through the barred windows. All elegance has fled; gone are the ornate architecture flourishes and vast entryways. Your local library, in any town or city, has more flair than this monotonous place.
Where is the Majesty?
Only a few people come here: the occasional student tired of people, a custodian on the job, maybe a librarian archiving an ancient text. The books, more than four million bound treatises written in bygone eras, are the only company to be found here. Most have not been kissed by the touch of human skin for decades, abandoned to the company of dust. Some of the overhead lighting has given up in a few places, plunging entire aisles of tomes into hermetic darkness. The books within are deserted, their profound words unread and their wise authors forgotten. The volumes privileged with light don’t fare much better. “The History of Relations” announces an ebony, hardcover Arabic book, its crumbling spine threatening to disintegrate into the same nothingness that constitutes the Library’s social relations. But what relations does the book speak of?
No one, not even you, cares to know. Most don’t even know there is a question to be asked.
By some windows sit snug cubicles cushioned between bookshelves, the scarred purple heaters and worn-out chestnut desks promising a relaxing studying environment, if only anyone would use them. Some spots are airier, replacing the study area with creaky wooden chairs facing the windows. “Sit down and enjoy the view,” the Library pleads the rare passerby.
The invitation goes unanswered.
Crisscrossing patterns of steel run down the windows’ length. A quick glance outside reveals tree-topped hills miles in the distance the filigreed Harkness Tower just a few blocks away and the cozy courtyard of Trumbull college right down below. A phone-immersed man in a dark gray sweatshirt saunters down a pathway as a woman donning sportswear runs by. In the distance, cars navigate a traffic jam on College Street. So many stories unfold in front of you, but you hear nothing of them, only the monotone hum of the air conditioner. At that moment, the world outside is a dazzling treasure just within reach but ultimately unattainable, a fluid, ever-changing testament to the wonder of a life forever unintelligible, a silent film that you can watch but never understand.
Seeing what the Library sees, isolation overwhelms you. You understand then the tragedy of the Library, trapped and misrepresented by its own ostentatious design. It sits, entrenched, on an elevated platform that doubles as a stage, an actor in a play with a plot as melodramatic as its Gothic architecture. Most people, visitors and students alike, will only ever see the majestic entrance hall, the grand façade that conceals the un-concealable: that the entrance hall is not part of the Library, that the actual Library is the many stories that tower — no, that hover — above it. You understand why the $20-million renovation in 2013 focused solely on updating the nave. You understand the sad cruelty of an electronic system that enables students to have their chosen books prepared for them at the circulation desk, removing the need for them to ever set foot inside the actual Library. You understand the Library’s profound loneliness.
At the center of Yale, there stands a forlorn King. The Library reaches for the sky, its height a marker of loneliness. The building sits on a raised platform, an indicator of isolation. The white of the bricks has eroded with time, signifying the Library’s abandonment.
The building is a sterling library, preserving millions of invaluable texts and admired by thousands. And yet, the hallowed institution is ultimately hollow inside. The Library is a memorial to a dead past and is treated as such. The grand Gothic architecture is a mark not of the indomitable but the insecure, a mask concealing. The greatest irony of the Library is, perhaps, that for a building so often looked at, it is almost never seen.
Ahmed Elbenni | firstname.lastname@example.org