Lost in the Books (Online Only)
Story by Benjamin Woodard
A ludicrous rumor is kicking around the library — just how ludicrous is up to you to decide.
The story goes something like this: Picture a 20-something college student who needs one last source for his research paper. From his room in Nash, he briskly walks through the crisp night air to Wilson Library around 11. Not many people are in the library just an hour before closing time and lights out.
He signs on to a computer and searches “Buffalo North America.”
“Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains” by Jack W. Brink.
That will do.
He heads up the stairs to Wilson 3W with a long string of digits scratched onto a piece of paper, call number E98.H8 B75 2008, looking for its match on the spine of one book out of thousands.
This is when our friend makes his first mistake — a common one — by taking a wrong turn on the third floor.
“I’ve heard stories like that for as long as I’ve worked here, which is 26 years,” says Frank Haulgren, the collection services manager. “I would find it hard to believe that someone just couldn’t ever find their way out of the stacks — they’re not that complicated, but it makes for some great urban legends.”
However, Sarah Colescott can relate to the problems of navigating the library. As a Western senior majoring in history, she says she spends much of her time in Wilson scanning the stacks for books. She remembers that finding an oversized book — maybe the trickiest of books to find — on Mesopotamia tested her internal compass.
“There are some floors that have some weird corners, but I usually just find the walkway I know and I follow it out,” she says. “The fourth and fifth floor trip me up.”
Haulgren is part of a committee that works to make library navigation easier. The daunting mission has led the group to rearrange the collections over the summer, and to consider pocket-sized maps, which may be available next fall, Haulgren says. He envisions something like Powell’s Books in Portland, with color-coded sections for easy browsing.
The group also conducted a “way-finding” study when it sent a group of students throughout the stacks in search of books, then afterward, asked how it went.
“We heard often, ‘I know the places I need to go to and I know how to get there, but I don’t like to deviate because it’s too complicated and I get lost,’” he says. “And that’s a reality.”
Much of the problem lies in the architecture. The library has had three additions since it was built in the 1920s. In the ‘60s, another layer was wrapped around the existing structure, and yet another one in the ‘70s, which was later connected to Haggard Hall in the late ‘90s.
The expansions created some awkward corners, hallways and doorways, to say the least.
Stack after stack, stairway after stairway, layer after layer, our buffalo-hunting man is lost. The clock ticks closer to midnight. He can’t find a soul in the dark hallways of Wilson.
The lights flicker, then all is dark.
Thankfully, some saint left a beanbag chair in room 494, wherever that is. Our lost researcher decides to wait this one out for the night, and nestles into the leather-covered Styrofoam like a fetched-out puppy.
He gets a shake from a librarian around 7 a.m. who leads our man through the labyrinth to his book, then finally outside, to freedom.