When I was twenty-one years old, I lived in a shabby four-bedroom house in a shabby college town with six other twenty-one year olds. It was disgusting. I shared a bedroom with a fine art student named Peter Van Wie. Peter often put on jogging shorts and a headlamp to go to the art studio late at night. There he would cover himself in paint and stomp all over his canvas. He dumped woodchips and trashcans on his paintings and then peed on them. When he was finished, he’d crawl into the art studio sink and bathe himself. Sometimes he painted pictures of giraffes. Peter was weird.
When we slept, we slept on a bunk bed. After our other roommates went to bed, we would turn off all the lights and light an oil lamp. We called it “the midnight oil.” Often while burning the midnight oil, we would find new ways to entertain one another. Sometimes we arm wrestled, sometimes we had dance parties on our roof, sometimes we tried to eat all the cereal in the house so that our housemates’ mornings would be ruined, sometimes we collected forty televisions and stacked them floor to ceiling in the living room.[i] We spent too much time together.
One night, we built a treasure chest. In it we put locks of our hair, money, pages from our favorite books, pictures of motorcycles, a mix cd, and a cassette tape with a recording of our last will and testament. We spent the rest of the night walking through town writing hints and riddles, drawing pictures, and counting paces, all for the purpose of making a treasure map leading to our really cool and very valuable treasure chest. The night ended with us burying the treasure under home plate of the only baseball diamond in town. The next morning, we went to the public library and put our treasure map in an old copy of Treasure Island.
This incident has been on my mind lately. A couple weeks ago, a man at the reference desk asked for a call number for a dissertation. The dissertation was in ALF. The patron was leaving town that day, but said he’d get it the next time he visited Bloomington. He went on to explain that while working on their Ph.Ds., he and his friends joked about how no one checked out dissertations after they were written. As a testament to this, they all put $10 bills in their dissertations with the intention of coming back years later to see if they were still there. After he left the reference desk, I requested his dissertation from ALF. Unfortunately for me, Charles Costa’s dissertation on Indiana school finance changes between 1963 and 1983 had been checked out via interlibrary loan in 1990 and the $10 was gone.
The point of these two ridiculous stories is to illustrate the unnoticed, un-assessed, and untraceable ways in which the library is used by patrons. Those uses are intrinsic to the value and charm of a library. Hiding little notes in books is an innocent and fun way to communicate with a complete stranger, who at the very least has in common with you an interest, however fleeting, in the same book. Activities like this are not essential, but they do happen and they do mean something to those involved. Of course, it is completely impractical and will never land anyone a job, lead to better grades, help someone finish a dissertation or thesis, or teach someone how to nail an interview. No meeting will ever discuss the ways in which the library can better foster patrons leaving secrets, correspondences, treasure maps, or money for another user to find in the stacks years down the line. It would be impossible to do so, and would compromise the integrity of the activity to try. As more books are moved offsite and more room is made for computer stations, offices, and study rooms, the library is becoming more practical, more useful, increasingly efficient, and staying relevant in the twenty-first century. While I think all those things are good, I can’t help but feel something is being lost along the way. Something that can’t be accessed online, or if requested before noon, picked up at Wells the same day.
Costa, C. (1984). Identification and analysis of Indiana school finance changes and trends, 1964 through 1983 (Doctoral Dissertation). Indiana University, Bloomington.
Stevenson, R.L. (1998). Treasure island. New York: Oxford University Press.