An Outsider in the University Library

I don’t like going to campus much. Even though it’s been years since I left grad school, I still fear I’ll run into a member of my committee if I'm on or near the university.  They’ll ask me how my dissertation’s coming along and when I’ll finish. (I always run into my outside committee member. He doesn’t ask, and I adore him for it.) They'll ask what I do now, and we'll get into a discussion about the job market.  I'll try to explain how happy I am now, and I'll still end up sounding bitter and resentful about academia.  So I don't go to campus much.

I feel an outsider, an intruder even, when I do. I don’t know any undergrads nowadays. They're my son's age, and that feels weird. I don’t think there are many grad students around from my cohort either. They’re long gone. Or I hope they’re long gone. 

But I had to go to the library today. I needed to read a book. A real book. A book in print. One that's not available online, unavailable in any digital format. It wasn’t available in print at the local public library either.

So I had to go to campus.

I couldn’t quickly find it in the stacks, check it out, and go. My university library privileges have long expired. I could sit and read the book there, but finding a good place to do so can be tricky -- the right spot, a spot where dissertation committee members will never see me.

thought today I could sit and read and take notes (and tweet).  It'd be a nice change of scenery, I tried to convince myself.  But then, when I got inside the big brick-and-concrete building, , I couldn’t access the Internet -- I couldn’t log-in to the WiFi network, and I couldn’t access 3G on my phone either. Nor could I find a table near an ethernet outlet. I’d forgotten (or rather, I’m oblivious) that it’s the end-of-term. The library was full of students, studying, something that had me strangely taken aback.

I noticed too that the study rooms on the third floor had been converted into grad students’ office spaces. I wondered which departments had expanded there. I wondered how the space issues reflected disciplinary power, office politics, and enrollment figures. I felt bad for not paying closer attention and relieved that I didn't have to.

I found the book I wanted in the stacks – top floor – and I sat down to take notes by hand. I could have photocopied or snapped photos, I guess, of the pages I wanted to reference. I could have typed my notes too, I realize. But there’s something about taking notes by hand that seemed both comfortable and right.

It felt right in part, I think, because this was Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society that I was looking to browse. I wanted to grab a couple of quotations from it for a presentation I’m preparing on education, efficiency, automation, and robots. (I’ve storified some of my notes below.)

But I didn’t linger long on campus. I just read a couple of chapters, jotted down some notes, and left. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the university library, which was a really strange and awful feeling to have. I longed to run into one of local intellectuals, activists, authors, and fellow PhD dropouts who I remember, years ago at least, would frequent the university library. But (sadly) they seemed long gone too.

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