On trying to check out some books at Rice and getting spooked

Here’s a somewhat amusing story.

Last week I took the train from UHD to Rice University to see if I could locate a few relatively hard to find books. UHD’s library has excellent online journal access, but a relatively slim collection of physical books. I was unable to find what I was looking for in the UH-Central library – a clutch of books on Paul and argumentation – but Rice’s online search located everything I was looking for, and it’s only a few miles away.

When I got off the train at the RU stop,  though, I immediately started getting… anxious.

Perhaps anxious is not the right word, though. Alienated is closer. It was a nice day, the sun was out, and I was about to embark on a pleasant afternoon of library-perusal. Why was I feeling so strange?

Well, when I walked onto the Rice campus proper, I started looking for signs to orientate myself – names on buildings, that sort of thing. But there weren’t any.

It was if I had wandered into a unfinished game level, all textures and no content. I felt like Rod Serling was going to step out in front of me, cigarette in hand, and start narrating: “A bookish English professor, lost on campus…. little does he know that his library card only grants him access to… the Twilight Zone.”

The lack of labels was so disturbing, in fact, that I felt compelled to stop before I got to the library to orientate myself inside one of the buildings. Surely, there would be maps and names and other such comforting symbols. I don’t know, though, because the doors were locked. It appeared to be a student cafeteria from the windows, but I couldn’t enter. There was a card reader that I assumed would open the door, but I’m not a Rice student.

I found this odd, so I tried another building nearby that looked like it might contain classrooms, and seemed to have people in it. It, too, was locked. I induced at this point that the campus was extremely security-conscious. Locked exterior doors at noon on a Wednesday?

Wandering further, I found a third building that was unlocked. Of course, there was nothing resembling a campus map or navigational information in the foyer or interior hall, although the ceiling and staircases were opulent enough that I felt like a rat in an art museum, so I beat a hasty retreat.

Eventually I spotted an impressive quad and hastened to the center of it. Surely I could locate the library from here. But again, none of the buildings had names on them save one. I knew the name of the library – Ronden – and that it was off the quad, but I ended up having to ask a passersby where the library was. He pointed to a nondescript building, which I entered.

Ronden is the first academic library I’ve encountered that requested a photo ID. I was ok with this, but it did not help my growing sense of alienation. The interior was new and spacious, but again I felt disturbed, possibly because there were sculptures on most of the walls made out of dozens of old books, which I felt was borderline sacrilegious.

I am very comfortable navigating in stacks – it is the most enjoyable part of doing any research – and I found what I was looking for quickly, enough that I had time to help a seminary student looking for books on 17th-century German theology. I took five books and headed downstairs. I figured off-campus faculty would be able to check out 3-5 books, and I only absolutely needed one of them. So that’s the setup – a 10-15 minute period of sudden alienation, followed by pleasant and productive book-searching.

What happened next I can only describe as odd. I approached the circulation desk, explained that I was a UHD faculty member and that I’d like to inquire how I could check out a few books. I was referred to a pleasant librarian that informed me that the library did not have a sharing agreement with UH-Downtown, only UH-Central. If I wanted to check out books, I would have to become a ‘friend of the library’, requiring a donation of $100; otherwise, the books could not leave the building.

I told her I understood, I’d think about the donation, and I retained the one book I needed, saying I’d read it in the library. I sat down to read the book, but after about a minute, I put it down on a table and walked out of the library.

I should explain a few things here. I have very idealistic notions about libraries and the distribution of knowledge that don’t always mesh with reality. It had become clear to me on my brief visit that the campus was not set up to be particularly visitor-friendly, but I had figured, naively, that there was no way a library would let me down. It struck me suddenly, sitting there, reading this book that I really, really needed to be reading, that I didn’t like being treated like a potential book thief.

I had assumed there was some sort of scholarly courtesy that would be extended, the same kind that I’ve experienced in many other academic libraries as a lowly graduate student, allowing a few books and a few weeks of borrowing. My schedule is heavy enough that I have to carefully schedule reading, which means I need the flexibility of portable books. I think if I hadn’t felt so alienated walking to the library that I might have stayed and read the book.

Now it’s not like RU’s library owes me a book loan. I could  get that book elsewhere, though with a loss of time. In fact, after consulting with the UHD library, I discovered that I COULD check out 4 books from Rice if I had a certain mysterious, miscellaneous card. I acquired this card and then returned to Fonden a day or two later. The resulting visit was much more pleasant. I didn’t need names or navigational markers this time, and the library was familiar and comfortable rather than the apex of my growing otherness of a few days before.

That sensation of being alien on a campus is new for me, and I’ve been thinking about it for a week now. UHD’s campus is incredibly friendly and open; I feel comfortable here. I also went to a fair number of unfamiliar campuses during my job search last spring, and I never felt that level of anxiety, even while under the level of stress that job-talk visits typically generate. I’ve also spend some time at UH-Central and HCC in Spring, and not felt uncomfortable in the slightest. So I must conclude that the architectural features of Rice’s campus actually managed to otherize me for a brief interval.

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