image: University of Chicago Magazine - logo

link to: featureslink to: class news, books, deathslink to: chicago journal, college reportlink to: investigationslink to: editor's notes, letters, chicagophile, course work
link to: back issueslink to: contact forms, address updateslink to: staff info, ad rates, subscriptions


APRIL 2002: Features (print version)


Home, home in the Reg
>>
Love it or hate it, College students still live at the library.

  Written by
  William S. Wan, '02


For Ray Gadke, the Joseph Regenstein Library is more than a building-it is home. Every morning at 7 a.m., Gadke walks into the empty library. Wearing his trademark Hawaiian shirt, he slips on his sandals, reads the Chicago Tribune, and makes his rounds on the third floor, turning on microform machines and tidying up tables and shelves for the morning crowd.

Head of the microforms department, Gadke, AM'66, has worked at the library since it first opened in 1971, and after 30 years he no longer notices the 4 million books or the 2,897 study spaces. He sees the library in anthropological terms-as a microcosm of the University. In this 577,085-square-foot cultural petri dish, Gadke, a former social-sciences lecturer, studies the strange behaviors, social patterns, and life of the College student.

More than 804,000 students, faculty, and staff swipe through the library turnstiles each year and, on average, 2,258 per day. That number fluctuates from the busiest day, Tuesday-when up to 3,500 students fill the library, cramming for exams and racing to finish papers-to the slowest day, Saturday-when the same students, minds numb from the week's work, will go anywhere but the library and do anything but study.

There are rumors around campus of students who never leave the library-those who have found intellectual nirvana in the Regenstein's hidden corners and now meditate on Plato, organic chemistry, and linear algebra in straight 12-hours sets. But for the average student, the library is less a temple and more a dorm away from dorm. Many spend whole days there. Most have picked a favorite floor and table and claimed them as their own.

What is it about the library that moves so many to call it home? I decide to find out, walking in Gadke's footsteps past the deeply grooved limestone walls, through the turnstiles, and into the world commonly known at the University as the Reg.

Among the regulars on this particular Tuesday late in fall quarter, Ben Carroll, a comparative-literature concentrator, finds his spot on the fourth floor with practiced familiarity. "I practically live at the Reg," explains the fourth-year. "It's my one-stop place for socializing, napping, and researching. At my dorm there's too much distraction. Harper's too social. And Crerar's too quiet," he adds, dissing both the College's Harper Memorial Library and the science divisions' John Crerar Library. "The Reg has just enough distraction."

The most tempting distractions are the plush sofa chairs by the windows on every floor. Their soft red, blue, and gray seats beckon the weary student. "Sleep," they seem to say.
A veteran library sleeper, Catherine Shim hears the call all the time and says she responds all too often. Her favorite technique is pulling together two chairs and catching blissful Zs between the cushions. "But I can just fall asleep anywhere," says Shim, '03. "Tables are good too. You just have to make sure you don't drool." And for that eventuality, Carroll offers this advice: "If you put your sweater on top of a Harrap's French dictionary, it makes a perfect pillow."

Demonstrating a different technique on the fifth floor, Vikram Nidamaluri sits before his laptop, head in his hands, closed eyes still facing the screen. He has fallen asleep writing a paper due the next day. When he wakes up, the first-year smiles wanly and explains, "I haven't slept the last two days…tonight I'm averaging 30 minutes per paragraph, so just two more hours and I'll be done."

The fifth floor has a reputation for hard-core students like Nidamaluri. Offering texts from distant Asian countries, the floor itself is an exotic land. During final exams, students' desks seem more like makeshift dorm rooms, complete with personal minilamps, alarm clocks, blankets, and pillows.

Yuh Wen Ling, a die-hard fifth-floor fan, sets up her cubicle with a laptop, CD player, headphones, and fluffy jacket for a pillow. "But I'm not that bad," the third-year whispers, pointing to others around her. "I know some on this floor who even keep a change of clothes and toothpaste in their lockers."

The beige lockers, stacked four high, stretch in long rows throughout the library. Each stands about seven books high, 20 books wide, and five deep, but even that's not enough for Colleen Daly, who is considering a second locker. She seems slightly embarrassed as she turns the latch to reveal a cubby overflowing with texts. She rented the $4-per-year locker when she started on her B.A. thesis over summer. With the thesis due soon, Daly, '02, has studied in the Reg every day of fall quarter, holing up in her favorite cubicle with a stack of books. Staring at the piles still waiting, Daly sighs, "There are definitely times when I feel like I should be doing more."

Like the smell of books, such guilt seems to permeate the Reg's atmosphere. With computers, friends, and sofa chairs conveniently near, students are always just an e-mail, conversation, or nap away from procrastination. Alejandro Ortiz, another library regular, says guilt is useless and unproductive. He considers himself a guru of sleeping and studying at the library-skills he's been developing since high school. "When I fall asleep studying, I wake up automatically in 20 minutes," he says. "It's like my body just knows I can't afford to miss time."

An orderly person who keeps his glasses wiped clean and his hair brushed in neat lines, Ortiz has strict study habits. He sets up books, fruit, and a water bottle at his table and checks e-mail beforehand so he won't have excuses to get up. After three years in the College, Ortiz has his cramming formula down pat. "Past 18 hours of work, the perfect nap is an hour and 15 minutes," he explains. "Your learning curve decreases the more sleep-deprived you get."

Like most students, Ortiz describes his chosen study spot in personal terms. "I'm a third floor kind of guy," he says. The third floor represents a compromise-a Taoist balancing of priorities. "It gets quieter the higher you go up, but the pretty girls are usually on the lower floors."

Walking through the different levels, I see the Reg's social pockets unfold like layered civilizations in an archaeological dig. History graduate students pore over their research on the third floor. Members of the Greek system dominate the second. On the first floor a group of Asian students discusses its migration this year from the second floor. "A little noise is good," says one. "Two's always been overrated anyway."

The basement's upper floor, A-level, is mostly filled with economics majors and business school students. For every person who passes through the double-door entrance, students glance up from their books, and the new entries are either dismissed or filed away for future reference. Longtime A-leveler Dan Egel, '02, notes, "The girls are always looking at the guys, and the guys are definitely looking at the girls."

The library has always been the social center of the campus, says Gadke-who was a graduate student when the Reg first opened-"so it becomes the arena when people want to deliver a message or want an audience." During the student protests in the 1970s, he recalls people pulling fire alarms almost every day, and every spring fraternity pledges streaked naked through the library. In the 1980s there were reports of a shoe thief prowling the Reg, preying on students who removed their shoes to study. According to Gadke, when police eventually caught the culprit, they found his apartment overflowing with footwear.

In the most recent prank library staff remember-besides the track team's annual streaking, which they try to forget-two years ago students sneaked in small chickens and set them loose on the third floor. Tyjuan Edwards, who was working at the circulation desk, remembers seeing the little balls of fluff. "I didn't have to catch them myself," says Edwards. "Not that I'm scared. I just don't like grabbing livestock."

Study purists, who shun this social side of the Reg, find refuge in the book stacks on the west half of every floor but the first. The stacks' abandoned rows of books are ghostly silent, except for the steady hum of the ventilation. Student worker Angela Zielinski is one of the few inhabitants of this dark underworld. The second-year glides between rows, jamming to her headphones while shelving returned books. "At night it gets a little creepy because it's so quiet and dusty," she admits. "But you get a lot of time to think. I work on math problems while shelving. I take Attic Greek too, so sometimes I decline nouns in my head."

Every year the library system hires 235 student workers like Zielinski to do everything from cataloguing new books to uploading scanned texts. Most jobs pay $8.67 to $9.27 an hour, but some, requiring specialized skills such as language translation, cross the $10 mark.

The book stack department hires the most students, 45 per quarter, and for the long-distance shelver the job can often be depressing and lonely. Full-time managers give frequent pep talks to motivate student workers and encourage shelving together to ward off boredom. "It can be a depressing job because the books just keep coming and never end," Zielinski says. "You have to remind yourself that what you do is important…. It's like Plato-shelving is for the common good, for the good of the state."

Over time the job becomes a test of the soul and will. For some, long-term exposure makes them indifferent to the cause. For others, the work becomes an almost sacred task. "For people with obsessive-compulsive tendencies like me, it's a perfect job," says Zielinski. "I think of myself as the guardian of books."

If shelvers are the Reg's sacred guardians, workers at Ex Libris are the sacrilegious jesters. Manager Lauren Kroiz says the student-run, University-funded coffee shop is much more than a business. "I don't know if it's really a charity, business, or support group," says the fourth-year art-history concentrator. "It's like a club where people come to hang out." Most of the staff show off their Ex Libris pride by wearing the shop's eX logo on backpacks, pants, and T-shirts. White and gray eX socks dangle from the door, a handwritten sign offering them for $2 a pair.

Located just below the lobby, the eccentric café is covered with other quirky, homemade signs. A Polaroid by the Thai food shows an employee squished onto the bottom rack of the fridge. The caption reads, "Where are your children right now?" Another sign in orange and black warns, "What if napkins were made of people?!?…YOU COULD BE NEXT!"

The shop is famous for its edgy personality, says Cian O'Day, who has worked there for two years. "We pride ourselves on giving our customers a little attitude. I mean, what's more memorable: a 'please' and 'thank you' or throwing a curveball in their day that will stick in their minds?"

Some of the curveball pranks have become legendary among employees. O'Day, a history concentrator, opens the file cabinet to show a Saran-wrapped plastic cup labeled "Gene's soul." He explains that bored employees once advertised free food for customers willing to sell their souls. "We ended up getting eight or 11 souls before we got in trouble with the manager," says the fourth-year. "Needless to say, most of the signers were people from the B-school and Law School."

"But it's all serious work now," claims O'Day, while another employee smirks and shakes her head behind him. The conversation among staff slowly drifts to faith in God and disillusion with society to boyfriends and strange customers.
"We talk about the customers a lot," admits Susan Catapano, a second-year employee. "Everyone knows Decaf Guy," she says, referring to a customer who exclusively buys raisins and decaffeinated coffee. "Then there's Excessively Meek Woman, The Three Nice Ladies, and Medium Man."

"And Quarter Man," adds O'Day. "He buys one bagel, takes like 14 things of cream cheese, and wants all our new quarters…you know, the ones with state landmarks. But he's really nice-nice but eccentric."

The description fits the employees just as well as the customers. The workers find themselves at the shop-even on days they don't work-just to hang out and check in with their friends. Relaxing in a chair in the back room, Catapano explains, "The library is my home. This is just my living room."



link to: top of the page 

 

 

 

uchicago ©2002 The University of Chicago Magazine 1313 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637
phone: 773/702-2163 fax: 773/702-2166 uchicago-magazine@uchicago.edu