Living Among the Stacks: the Dream vs. the Reality

living in library

In a recent post for The New York Observer, Mélanie Berliet profiled a New York University student living out of lockers in the Uni’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. By living in the library Felix saves thousands on housing costs and says he avoids forced socialization with a roommate. What both Felix and Berliet fail to address in the article, however, is the other potential advantages of 24-hour proximity to the library’s “3.7 million volumes, 58 thousand serial titles, and over 5.4 million microforms.”

Despite living in the same building with a book and media collection this size, Felix appears to go about his day much the same as any other undergraduate; attending class, exercising in the university’s athletic facilities, falling asleep to films. When I imagine a life lived among library stacks, Felix’s is not the life I imagine.

This imagined life is more in line with that of Claudia and Jamie in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweilertwo children who live covertly in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, hiding from guards, bathing in and pulling coins from the fountain, sleeping in a roped-off antique bed at night. Technically, Felix doesn’t seem to be breaking any rules by living in Bobst; students like him are allowed 24-hour access to some portions of the library (maybe the lack of rule breaking is where the idea loses its romantic appeal). But surely he could be having more adventures than he lets on.

When I think of living in a library, I imagine combing the stacks night after night, hiding away in a dark corner with a blanket and flashlight and reading into the wee hours. I imagine dry skin on my fingertips from too many page turns. I imagine great and terrible sneezes building in my chest, brought on by the dust trapped in bindings. I imagine pulling apples and sandwiches from a backpack in the dead of night, like Bastian curled in his school attic.

I suppose what I really imagine is converting a space for public access to knowledge into a secretly private one. Stated that way, it’s an idea that strikes me as both selfish and thrilling.

Felix may be saving a heap of money living in Bobst (cash that Berliet’s story suggests he isn’t strapped for), but if he’s making the experience one of convenience rather than necessity or adventure…is he doing it right? I can’t help hoping that once the story went to print, once Felix was left alone again in his dewey-decimaled surroundings, that he was quick to retreat to his real home; where sneakers pad softly on the floor of the stacks, where for a few hundred dollars he can spend every moment, both waking and asleep, in the company of bound pages.

Liz Gillett


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