I had been in the library for an hour, crawling up and down floors, heading up twisting paths between gray stone towers, parading by endless locked doors festooned with office hours times and course-relevant Far Side cartoons, before I found out there were no books.
“They took those out years ago. Now they’re all underground at the Reg with the ~robot arms~” my friend Rachel, a U of C alumna, texted when I finally gave in and asked where to find something to read in the University of Chicago’s Harper Library.
Rachel is Rachel Hyman, editor/founder of Anthology of Chicago and my co-founder/co-organizer/co-conspirator in the Welcome to the Neighborhood reading series.
She’s small and poised, with a pleasant energy and a long mane of bright pink hair shaved back down to her natural brown on the sides. We had been asked to speak at a U of C class on Chicago writers because I guess we both are ones now.
For Rachel, it was a chance to return to the halls where she earned her own education, communing with the new crop of students to share the education that life, time and growth have given her since she capped and gowned her way out into the real world.
For me, it was a chance to show up early and spelunk Chicago’s Hogwarts.
The William Rainey Harper Memorial Library was dedicated in 1912, named after the U of C’s first president and designed by the architects who created the Art Institute of Chicago. The Gothic design, twisting stairwells and general “Indiana Jones should teach here” of it were based on King’s College Chapel at Cambridge and on Magdalen College and Christ Church College at Oxford.
It was meant as an academic castle, a bit of Oxford and Cambridge on Chicago’s South Side.
Although it had the tops of book-getting technology at the time — telephones and pneumatic tubes — the library eventually was turned into a place for classrooms, offices and study. In 1970, the university transferred nearly two million books from the Harper and 11 departmental libraries into the then-new Regenstein Library, which apparently according to Rachel has ~robot arms~.
And god, it’s beautiful.
I got lost among the halls’ gray stone and students’ gray MacBook Pros repeatedly, earning some odd looks as I passed the same chatting couple as I variously headed north, south, up, down then somehow left-west. I caught myself wondering if I had gone through the same five-foot-high hidden hallway between towers before. I had to go out of the building, then in, then out again to look up and confirm that, yes, there was actually a great hall at the top even if the elevator didn’t seem to want to take me there.
It was academia, of course, with all the trappings that entails. There were gabbing, flirting students and dour-eyed, frustrated professors. When I finally found my way to the massive great hall, I found the usual mixture of laptops, panic, whispered jokes and public naps any college common area will bring.
Among the offices, there were snarky signs on doors and occasional pots of coffee brewing inside. One locked door hidden around a gray stone corner by a restroom where the M had been painted in now-chipping curlicue housed a professor who had apparently been there so long, the sign listing his hours had been made on a typewriter.
Tenure must be nice.
Eventually, it was time for class. Rachel showed up and we hung out with Professor Durica’s students for an hour. Nice folks. Good questions. Time was up and we left. That was it.
I headed north to catch the bus, cutting through the campus and running into two of the students from the class. One was a computer science major who wanted to talk about the possibilities of integrating GPS technology and mobile apps into literature.
As we chatted about startups and digital platforms, I cast an eye back at the academic castle, stunned and humbled that all these things can exist in the same world.