Thursday, October 10, 2013

Reminiscences about Old Libraries from an Old Librarian, Part 1

       I have worked in really old libraries and in brand new libraries and in some of a middle age, and while the new ones were more roomy and convenient, it's the old ones that I have the fondest memories of, and also some of the weirdest.  All libraries have their eccentricities, but the old ones are like pixillated little old ladies and gentlemen.  You never know what they will do next.
       The first library I ever worked in (and the one where I studied as an undergraduate) was the one below.  I attended Colorado College from 1957 through 1961 and during that time I worked as a student assistant for the summer after my sophomore year (the summer after my junior year I took beginning German and I never tried to work and go to school at the same time -- I've never been a multitasker).  Then I worked again as a circulation assistant the summer after I graduated, before I went to Cornell to study for my MA.  In 1962 CC's brand spanking new Charles Leaming Tutt Library opened and I worked there  that same summer (starting only a few weeks after the building opened -- they were still laying carpet) before I headed to UCLA for my library science degree.  I was to return ito the new library in 1963 as Catalog Librarian, but that's a whole different story.
Coburn Library, Colorado College, 1894-1962
A Postcard View
       Here is some information on Coburn Library from
The building was constructed of "peachblow sandstone quarried near Aspen."  It's a beautiful red stone and several of the early buildings on the campus were constructed of that material.  "Coburn cost about $45,000 to build. The major donor was the Hon. N. P. Coburn of Newton Massachusetts, a childhood friend of CC President Slocum. In 1940, to make room for the growing collection, a four-story addition with room for 60,000 volumes was built for $20,000."

Interior View of Coburn Library, ca. 1895
Thanks to
       "The building, judged inadequate even after the addition, was razed in 1963. The statue of Winged Victory of Samothrace, seen here in an interior view ca. 1895, disappeared around that time. We hold out hope that it will come back home to roost one day."
       This interior view may be from 1895, but when I was in college, it looked exactly like this, except the addition at the back had done away with that half-moon window.  Everything was decked out in beautiful warm-hued, polished woodwork. The rare book collection was housed in a locked closet in the upper left hand of the picture, reached by a metal circular staircase.  Nike was still there in my time -- when I was pondering my reading at a table, I used to look up at that statue in some fascination.  The circulation desk was always over there at the left, and I presume the small card catalog seen at the left in the picture included all the books the library contained in 1895.  By my time the library had maybe 100,000 books (I honestly have forgotten, so I don't swear by this figure) crammed into that small space.
       You see those balconies at the upper right?  By my time bound periodicals were shelved there, and sometimes a little old lady would ask you so sweetly to get a volume down for her. What can a student assistant do but comply?  You had to climb up a really tall ladder while dangling halfway out over the edge of the balcony.  Honestly, it was scary! 
       Not seen in this picture (which looks north) is the balcony at the southern end of the main room.  It housed the materials in the historical ranges of the Dewey Decimal system and it seems like I was always stuck with shelving books there.  Of course there were no elevators.  You had to load up a tray of books (you know how heavy books are) and carry them up a steep, cut-back staircase, and then keep going up and down a ladder with a few books each time.  Maybe that's why I have so much arthritis in my shoulders now!  I've hauled books around all my life!
       The 1940 addition was bare-bones -- just metal stacks in about four levels -- but at least the ceilings were low and it was supplied with carrels with slit windows, so you could look out over the quadrangle when you were studying.
       Do any of you remember the smell of old libraries?  New libraries smell like fresh paint and plaster and carpet chemicals, but old libraries smell like musty, unsunned storage caves -- paper dust and old crumbling leather bindings and book glue and a touch of printing ink and furniture polish and maybe some disintegrated bookworms thrown in for good measure.   A wonderful, nostalgic smell that I can still conjure up for myself!
       Now, the spookiest and most aromatic part of Coburn Library was the basement.  It contained storage for government documents.  I presume you all know that many libraries are repositories for government documents; they automatically receive at least a selection of everything printed by the GPO.  You know how much paper the government produces.  Any academic library worth its salt has a librarian solely in charge of government documents, and those materials take up a heck of a lot of space.  In Coburn it was the basement.  It was lit only by drop lights and they didn't stay on all the time.  There were no centralized switches for the lighting, so in the evening when the library closed up, somebody had to sweep the building, turning off the lights.  If somebody requested a document in the daytime, you would have to go down there and find it for them, turning the lights on as you went.  Some of the aisles were piled with overflow from those sections of shelving. 
       There is a cartoon that I think came from the New Yorker, but I'm not sure.  I've been trying to find it online but without any luck, alas, so I'll describe it.  It shows a female librarian between two stacks with a bunch of books piled on the floor just like I used to see in the Coburn basement.  Sitting on top of the books (with a drop light overhead) is a skull draped with cobwebs and the woman is regarding it with the most horrified expression.  I used to feel just like that when I had to go down there.  It wouldn't have surprised me at all to find a mummified body!  Murder in the Library!  I think that's been done in more than one mystery novel! 
       It pained me that they demolished this quirky old building.  I would have liked to see it preserved and put it on the Register of Historic Buildings.  But the college needed the land for a new administration building and auditorium, so ... Coburn is gone never to return.
       And by the way, if anybody out there knows the location of that Winged Victory, please get in touch with me!


  1. The first library I haunted was quite old. I'd have to look up the history to find out how old. It went away and the new library was constructed when I was living elsewhere. It's now getting to be "old." Since I have a small branch near my home, that's where I go to pick up books I don't want to buy on Kindle, but would like to read. Usually, they're older books which might not even be in ebook.

    Nice reference to "Harvey," by the way. We're probably both a bit pixillated.

    1. Oh, so you think you're pixillated, huh? Speak for yourself! LOL Seriously, though, I've known quite a few pixillated librarians! Thanks for stopping by, Marva!

  2. The first library I remember (from my small-town southern childhood back in the Stone Ages) was no bigger than a garage, and, in fact, did double duty as the meeting hall for the United Daughters of the Confederacy (yikes!). Later on, we had the book mobile. Both spaces smelled exactly as you describe in your post (with a soupçon of diesel fumes thrown in at the mobile iteration). Like you, I loved spending time in those book-filled spaces. Thanks for reminding me of those environs.

    1. Yes, actually I skipped over my public library memories! Any place we ever lived when I was growing up, we always quickly sought out the public library. Sometimes it was a typical Carnegie Library like the branch on the West Side of Colorado Springs or the rather grand downtown main library in the same city, and in small towns it might be a room in a small building maintained by a volunteer. I always managed to find something interesting to read! And then there were the school libraries. I worked in those both as a junior high and high school student and loved it! Thanks for stopping by, Jack!

  3. I actually have the old engraved "N.P. Coburn Library" cornerstone. I acquired it when I was a CC student in the 80's. It now resides as the center stone of my front walkway which is made of red sandstone / flagstone.

    1. Anonymous, I don't know who you are, but I appreciate your comment! What fun it would be to have that kind of memento of a great old building!

    2. Yes, it's really pretty cool. It's red peachblow 2 x 3 feet and weighs about 150 pounds. I hauled it from Colorado back to the midwest in a Renault Alliance -- it almost killed the car. In college, it was placed on 4 cinder block 'legs' and used as a coffee table-- The "O" in Coburn worked really well as an ashtray.....

    3. It really is cool to learn all this! Thanks for sharing! How did you get it? I would have thought the college would have wanted to keep it.