The Ionic columns of Columbia University’s Butler library support “Great” names chiseled in stone. Virgil, Cicero, Goethe, Shakespeare – Columbia isn’t pulling any punches. Striking even for Columbia seniors, the library is something to behold when you’ve come from NYU with an ID that you heard will grant you access.
It wasn’t until mid-2011 that three major city libraries – the NYPL, Butler, and Bobst – decided to pool their collections. The Manhattan Research Library Initiative (MaRLI), though created to eliminate “overlap of specialized materials,” seems to have had its biggest impact in strengthening the special relationship between Columbia and NYU.
Expecting a lengthy conversation with the security guard, we were pleased to discover we could just swipe in. The Greek allusions continue throughout Butler. Low Library across the way is guarded by a bust of Athena. Its moniker – “The Library of Columbia University” – cruelly misleads tourists and NYU students. Originally Columbia’s main library, Low reportedly became so sunken (“low”) with books that the collection had to be moved over to Butler. (Athena, birthed from her father Zeus’ head, is the authority on war and wisdom.)
Like a bad donut, Butler is impressive on the outside and aesthetically disappointing at its core. The marble floors extend through the cafe – which serves bubble tea – and up six flights of echoing stairs. It’s a bigger, quieter place than Bobst. The students are pretty and intelligent (an unfair combination, really). They’re also laughably preppy at times. Even the best-intentioned hipsters (dark glasses, a scarf, boots) hold nothing to the chainsmokers leaning against Tisch.
In short, Butler is beautiful. It’s worth a visit simply to take photos; it’s definitely worth the trek to study. With 9.3 million books, the collection is triple that of Bobst. But there’s a price to pay for reading rooms whose hush is broken only by the sliding of the card catalogs still in use. People seem unfriendly, or just hungry: There are no Cheez-Its being gratefully pulled open and clumsily spilled, or deliveries made to the lobby from Crepeaway. Most Columbia students blanched at being asked anything – a question for directions was returned with, “I guess the elevator is over there?”
Though no roaring lions grant you access, Butler is otherwise very similar to the New York Public Library on 42nd. The grand entrance, original artwork, and echoing staircases seem to be built not for students, but for the public. Bobst is depressingly practical, but Butler has a commitment to beauty. This sort of library is compulsory when you consider that Columbia is the only Ivy League school in New York City. It’s a landmark. (No amount of Bobst refurbishment will turn it into anything like it.)
Though the most important part of the library, the stacks are also the most hidden. It’s easy to find carrells lit by expensive lamps, but harder to locate the books that placed you there. The stacks are musty and caged. A few lights flicker on when they sense movement, but for the most part, everything is dark. In fact, Butler’s bowels look almost identical to Bobst’s. It takes at least half an hour in Butler to discover where the “real” books are. The advantage? It’s also ideal for sex.
So, all libraries are equal. (Didn’t Tolstoy say something about this?). Asians sleep here, too:
The center of the complex is hard to find and hard to exit; when you do, you’ll probably find yourself on the wrong floor and in a white hallway that will bring you back to The Shining. And the private study rooms: Think LL2 with opaque windows and perpetually-locked doors that could hide a body – maybe even its smell – for days.
Though Bobst can be stressful, its stresses are a shared plight. Strangers become friends at 2 am, when laughter derived from sleep-deprivation rises as easily as a yawn. And really, it’s laughable that the two universities haven’t shared their collections until now. Though as far as the length of Manhattan, the distance between Columbia and NYU is metaphorically small: Both are Top 50 schools on the island that share a mission to bridge the gap between life-learning and book-learning. This decision has been a long time coming, and we’re looking forward to combining brainpower with “that other college in New York.”
Photos by Rachel Kaplan