Gavin Guerrette

As I waited for a library employee to grab a book for me off the holding shelf, I contemplated for the first time the process that took place between my request for the novel and its physical copy being transferred to me. I looked around at students sitting at desks, library staff shuffling by in invisible concentration, security staring off into the right angles of the ceiling panels. The room seemed smaller all of a sudden, its title—library—fading into obscurity as I examined the mundane.

 The student employee slid the book over to me. 

“Thank you,” I said and walked away. How strange, I thought, that I spend so much time here and yet never think about it. The rows of bound pages seemed to make themselves known at that moment— as if I had never truly seen them before. It was one of those instances where the beautiful absurdity of the everyday pronounces itself without explanation. The complexity of a space we infrequently question, where the terrestrial becomes the center of extraordinary purpose, where you can ask for a book and 48 hours later it appears at a desk. The absurdity of so much learning yet so much silence. 

I brought my thoughts on libraries up with my friend Hannah Szabó. I told her I find libraries a little existential. They are monuments to a scale of knowledge no single person can ever hope to grasp. Libraries stand at the nexus of temporality and knowledge, as guardians of information I know I will never fully realize. They taunt me. Perhaps it is this paradox, the ability to access some of the knowledge in a library but never being able to access it all, that truly stand out to me. 

Hannah added that libraries are spaces where we students go to be surrounded by knowledge, even if we don’t access that knowledge directly. Often we study in places dominated by books, but most of us never actually pick one up. And the ones we do access usually come from a request, not from impulsive inquiry. Again I couldn’t help but feel a sense of curiosity in it all. An inspiring sense of finitude, of ignorance. It filled my mind with questions. 

Hannah supposed that there is a level of paradox about the way most students interact with libraries, but that is part of what makes a library a library. She said that being a person, especially one who engages with learning in the way Yalies do, is in some way to be able to access an encyclopedic level of knowledge. Hannah believes that people desire a vast body of information that is already organized, making the unimaginable accessible. “I think that’s one of the things that makes me feel most alive. It [helps] make life feel most meaningful because without that we are kind of swimming in ignorance.”

She also drew my attention to libraries as more than just physical locations. As a native New Haven resident, Hannah grew up studying in different parts of Sterling Library. She looks back at these moments as integral to her current relationship with education. She noted that she finds “Sterling a very important landmark, not only to the university but also to the city. And I think it does a great job straddling the line between a public monument and a private space for study.”

Hannah’s words helped me understand libraries as both physical structures and symbolic institutions. So much of ‘the Yale experience’ is tied into libraries. It is impossible to separate the various libraries from Yale as a monolithic institution of higher education. I had never thought about the way the libraries had influenced others until they began to influence me. I was filled with a sense of wonder at the power of four stone walls, endless rows of books, the papers written there, and the truths revealed by a library only when one stops looking at its contents.  

But, if I was going to understand the way libraries entrench themselves in our daily lives while simultaneously being spaces of extraordinary purpose, I had to know the system going on behind the scenes.

In an interview with Barbara Rockenbach, the Stephen F. Gates ’68 University Librarian, I learned that libraries see themselves as serving two primary functions: “the preservation of materials and [being] a space where people come to learn.” Rockenbach explained that libraries are designed to help students and faculty with their research, while also being a space of community. She noted that post-COVID the driving force for people to engage with the library, may not be books and journals, but rather the space itself. This is why libraries are a place of community.

I think Rockenbach’s notion of ‘community’ is similar to the way Hannah expressed the importance of libraries to members of Yale and New Haven at large. Libraries are the manifestation of people’s desire to unite in their curiosity for knowledge. Not only are libraries physical locations that enable people to learn, but they also stand as reminders of the great history of people who have devoted themselves to the same effort. They combine the task of learning with a sense of historic grandeur. They combine the importance of the everyday with the powerful abstract. 

Equally important to the community libraries foster are the books they hold, but strangely enough, the majority of the books owned by Yale aren’t held in any single library. Instead, they are kept at an off-campus warehouse, the Library Shelving Facility (LSF). According to Yale’s digital records, the LSF is “an off-campus complex, comprised of an 8,000 square foot processing area, as well as six modules containing 63,810 square feet of shelving space.” LSF comprises “twenty-eight aisles, containing over 50,000 shelves, and currently houses approximately seven million items.” 

Michael Bell, the Associate University Librarian for IT and Administrative Services, corroborated this in our interview: “[LSF] functions like a large warehouse. The stacks go up 30 feet high. A library employee will go up on a kind of forklift to grab a book and then transfer the item from LSF to a library truck. These trucks then move these items all around campus.”

It’s not just the scale of the LSF that is astounding either. The facility has enabled library spaces on campus to be used for more than just storage. Because the LSF houses more than twice the number of books as Sterling, the buildings on campus have more room to make collaborative and private study spaces. Both at the LSF and on campus, there is a lot of invisible labor that goes on behind the scenes. The Yale library system employs over 500 people across campus and is the single largest employer on campus. 

Yale libraries are far more than just physical buildings too— they are also digital repositories used for accessing a different form of knowledge. As technology comes to dominate much of the way education functions, so too is it impacting the institutions that hold knowledge. Rockenbach noted that “librarian work has changed because technologies have changed. Gone are the days when we would pore over print catalogs and make decisions one by one.” Now, libraries have rebalanced that time to collections of service. Individual librarians now have more time to go out and talk to students and faculty.

I learned that in the past few years, there has been a strong push within the Yale libraries to advance technological access to information. There has also been an increase in the university’s acquisition of digital resources such as online publications. This has made it possible for students to request digital copies of books or ask library staff to create digital scans of material. 

However, the role libraries play in accessing knowledge doesn’t end there. Rockenbach expressed the paradoxical transformation libraries have undertaken in the last few years because of widespread access to internet search engines. “The issue used to be a scarcity of information, you went to a library to find information. Now the problem is abundance, there is simply too much.” 

Originally it was the scale of libraries that prompted my inquiry, but I learned that libraries offer a reprieve from endless pages of information online. How could it be that libraries feel so inaccessibly large when they provide much-needed order compared to everything online? Perhaps it’s because the internet is intangible. Because we are unaware of the volume of content within the internet it feels smaller, reduced to the various screens we allow it to inhabit. Whereas a library is a physical structure that proclaims its grandiosity from its inception; after all, it takes a lot of space to house millions of books (as demonstrated by Yale’s LSF). Perhaps this makes libraries another kind of paradox: they reduce the quantity of information into one physical location for easier access, but by instantiating this knowledge libraries make it feel even less accessible than it did before. 

This would, in some sense, explain why the library pronounced itself to me in that unremarkable moment in Bass. Only when one begins to think about the paradoxes of a library does the library itself come to one’s attention.

Let us return to the physical nature of libraries. Unfortunately, even when books are scanned digitally and multimillion-dollar warehouses store books off campus, the issue of space remains. Libraries are forced to decide what information is valuable and worth preserving, bringing libraries into conversations about access to knowledge more broadly. 

When Yale gets rid of books it’s called “deaccessioning.” This most frequently takes the form of donating such books to local libraries or other universities around the country. While some books have become outdated, there is still a sense of obligation to this knowledge. Rockenbach noted that deaccessioning may occur “in the case of duplicates, but we are really careful about getting rid of books. What we are trying to do is think about this idea of ‘access not ownership.’”

Yale libraries don’t exist in a vacuum, but instead in an intricate web of electronic databases shared across several academic institutions. The most prominent is the Borrow Direct system, which unites all the Ivy League as well as MIT, Stanford, University of Chicago, and Johns Hopkins. Over the past decade or so the Borrow Direct schools have moved to reduce the number of copies of books each holds and instead make digital versions of these items more widely accessible. Rockenbach summarized it best when she expressed that “libraries have come to realize that space is a finite thing, so the answer is to decrease the number of print books but ensure we have access to them.”

Daniel Dollar, the Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Resources, noted that “collections are a service, but they are also a network in terms of trying to preserve bibliographic diversity.” Dollar stressed that libraries exist to ensure people have access to a diverse range of knowledge. This diversity is only made possible by combining the resources of several universities and investing in the infrastructure to maintain it. Bibliographic diversity is part of what defines libraries, and it enables “our stacks to hold up the building,” Dollar said with a wink. 

Bell added, “An important role of [libraries] is preservation. We are in the cultural heritage space as a part of Yale. Just like museums and art galleries.” While preserving physical texts in a building is one thing, preserving that information online is an entirely different struggle. Bell emphasized that it is the libraries’ “role to preserve what we can in a world where preservation outside of libraries is not considered, if at all. It is essential because there is so much out there and most for-profit companies have no reason for preserving things.” 

Bell noted that, compared with the space issue, the topic of digital preservation “is a bigger challenge because the electronic and digital are largely ephemeral. The electronic is subject to change.” When a book is placed in a library it is incredibly hard to change, but electric versions are much easier to alter. Not only does the alteration of digital texts pose an existential threat to the mission of libraries, but it also threatens the integrity of these places as monuments to history. 

Part of my fascination with libraries began with their seemingly eternal essence. The prospect that libraries— serving an important role in a digital sphere— are in some way unable to continue their mission of preservation was deeply frightening to me. Bell reassured me that the Yale libraries are fully equipped to deal with these issues, however, the thought still nagged at me. I suppose that as finite monuments to history libraries choose what history to store and what not to. Therefore, my fear that this history may get lost or distorted is also contingent on larger decisions made by librarians as to what history is worth remembering in the first place. 

The endless rows of books at the LSF now seemed darker in my imagination. Not that they had lost their value, but that the truth of their value was revealed to me as contingent— not eternal. This is a fact that I had known all along, yet refused to confront. A final paradox contained within the beauty of a library’s mission: in striving to preserve knowledge for as long as possible, libraries reduce the transcendental nature of knowledge to a series of finite, pragmatic, and unremarkable decisions. We would be lost without libraries, yet we may never know what we have lost because of them. 

What all started in Bass when I grabbed a book was really a struggle with something I believe all people contend with. Beyond libraries, there is an impasse within our minds when attempting to grasp both the scale and depth of any topic. We can focus on the far-reaching relationships of something, on the way it connects to so many other parts of our lives. Or we can focus on its impacts, the casual and effect it creates, following the chain of events down into the hypothetical. But we can’t do both, not at the same time at least. Libraries stood out to me because at the moment I questioned their depth— how they work— I could no longer see their scale. And when I tried to realize just how many parts of my world libraries came to affect, I could no longer understand the system going on behind the scenes. The library was a reflection of my ignorance, my own paradox. 

Libraries are beautiful reminders of this human truth. They are the center of the extraordinarily mundane that must be celebrated. They stand as monuments to the limits of human knowledge by promising us that we can surpass it. They are the manifestation of paradox and absurdity. They are a mirror of endless pages that invite us to reflect on the truths we take for granted, and the ones that we have yet to discover.