Harper Library, University of Chicago

I really love libraries. And I think librarians are a useful invention. I would like to make that all clear at the outset. Because the following little true tale from college days should serve as a warning to all who labor in the stacks and are thereby infused with the implacable desire to inform the world of the awesome splendor of it all.

On the first day of orientation week for entering students at the University of Chicago, 400 of us were gathered into the Mitchell Hall auditorium to bend a heedful ear as several speakers would step to the stage and outline the various departements of the university for us. First by right, and justly so, was the head librarian, a small balding man of about 40. He was commander-in-chief of Harper Library, an impressive edifice housing among its 2,713,000 volumes such intriguing works as “An Analysis of Tertiary Creep in Rotating Copper Discs” and “A General Symposium on Utter Depravity.”

After a few introductory remarks he referred to the number of volumes under his command and then paused about three months to note the effect on his audience. This apparently failing to satisfy he went on.

“If all the book shelves presently holding books in Harper LIbrary,” I remember him saying, “were laid end to end they would stretch from the university ┬áto Racine, Wis.” Pause for effect. He then told us that if all the volumes were laid end to end, discounting reference works, they would stretch to — I believe it was the capitol of Springfield.

“If all the pages in those books were placed next to each other on the ground…” All this was delivered in the driest of monotones, unrelieved by so much as a single throat clearing. What had been billed on the schedule as a ten-minute introductory talk on the services of the library continued for an hour and forty minutes.

We learned that the average elapsed time from the moment a student requested a book from the stacks and that book was delivered into his scholarly little hands was… 1 minute, 31.4 seconds. The longest recorded elapsed time was 8 minutes, 43.2 seconds. And one felt sure that that slacker felt the full vengeance of the law. The briefest recorded delivery time– and the faintest of smiles played on his lips — was 1.3 seconds. There seemed little doubt as to who held the watch.

After much, much more of this, inlcuding meaningful facts and figures on the Shakespeare folios and the letters from Oliver Cromwell, he stopped — though it was some moments before anyone was sure– and asked if there were any questions.

There was a pause, and then with one motion 400 students began stamping their feet up and down on the cement floor and shouting “More! More!” There were also a few cries of “Bravo!” That was the last time the library talk was given in the orientation program for entering students.


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