In its final issue of the semester, The Eye presents personal anecdotes about Butler Library. From the alcoves to the stacks—from 7 a.m. all the way to 4:30 a.m. (yes, a.m.)—these stories span the where and the when of the Butler experience.
I usually pick a room in Butler that gives me a good view of the Low Memorial Library—the magnificent neoclassical style is an inspiring reminder of those who came through these gates before when the going gets tough. But sitting in room 407 last semester during my third all-nighter in a row, Low still within sight, I had lost all motivation to keep going. The idea of sprinting back to East Campus and crashing in my bed amused me. But of course, this was an important paper for an important class and I had to complete it.
It was around 4:00 a.m. when I looked around to see just one other person in the room with his headphones on, Red Bull next to his laptop, staring at his computer screen. However, my turning around must have distracted him because he looked up as he saw me looking at him. Just a brief exchange of eye contact, and we both got back to our respective work—well, at least he did. While still unable to focus, in a few minutes I turned around again and this time the awkward eye exchange turned into a slight smile exchange. For some strange reason, it was a sign of assurance and mutual understanding of the struggle we both knew we were going through. I realized I was not alone in this, and that made me feel better about my situation.
For the next few hours, while I actually did get work done, there were no words exchanged but mere smile exchanges here and there. At around 7:30 a.m. when I was almost done and realized I needed the comfort of my bed to finally finish off my work, I started to pack my stuff and was preparing to leave when he took off his headphones said with a smile, “Get some rest!”
As I left Butler I thought to myself this is not the first time that another person’s motivation and determination at Columbia has inspired me. There are some great minds that have studied here, but we sometimes forget that there are some brilliant, inspiring minds that surround us. The spirit of Butler and Columbia in general stems from the brilliant, hard-working, and determined minds around us. The power of this great institution sometimes hinders us from seeing that what is before us. I walked past Low Library, feeling accomplished and grateful for being surrounded by such motivated people.
For the most part in college, I’ve tried to lead a healthy existence. I get enough sleep, work in moderation, and get out of Morningside Heights as often as I can. This philosophy has lent itself to certain patterns of work during the weekends—I prefer to wake up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, grab some coffee, and power through the day so I have time to socialize later that night instead of finding myself at Butler on a Sunday night, typing furiously and stopping only to pry my eyelids open.
But, as a perfectionist confronted with the end-of-semester barrage of papers, tests, and problem sets, I’ve been working nonstop, including late on the weekends.
So perhaps it is this trend of late-night study sessions that caused me to come to a pathetic realization. Returning to Columbia from a Passover Seder this Saturday, prepared to spend the night writing three papers, I strolled into my lounge and asked if it would be acceptable to venture to Starbucks in my pajamas. My friend’s reply: “Anything goes at Starbucks past 10 p.m.”
His response elucidated something to me that I’ve missed in this new habit of late-night study sessions at Butler. Until that moment, I hadn’t conceptualized my occasional late-night study sessions any differently from the way I had my normal schedule, my 7 a.m. study habits. I was up and nobody else was. Nothing seemed different. But yesterday, when my friend made that little statement, I realized: It is acceptable to be in Starbucks at 7 a.m. on a weekend. It makes me seem productive. But at 10 p.m. on a Saturday? Nobody goes to Starbucks at 10 p.m. for a reason, certainly not on the weekend.
Similarly, when the clock strikes midnight at Butler on a Saturday, the very laws of the universe seem to change. Do you normally have trouble finding a seat in the Wein Reference Room with a working outlet? Fear no longer. Want to use the printer? There’s no line. Unlike at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, anyone you meet in Butler on a weekend night past the witching hour does not care what you do; you’re not among your productive peers, but instead a motley crew of desperate undergraduates. Really, anything goes. Take any seat you want; have a nice conversation with a friend in a 310 alcove. I’d honestly recommend it, if you can stomach the occasional bout of FOMO. Just one tip: Try to avoid the torrent of your drunken peers on the way out.
I don’t think I’ve ever set foot in Butler before 1 a.m. on any given night. Part of it is my horrendous sleep schedule, but a massive part of it is also the firsthand knowledge that the best time to score a seat in one of the alcoves—room 304, just above the Writing Center—is just as the first wave of sleepy-eyed stragglers file out, anywhere between 1 to 2 a.m. Those alcoves have, in the space of barely two semesters, established themselves as my favorite space in Butler. They’re secluded enough so you don’t have to see the desperation of fellow all-nighter-ers around you or deal with the crackling wrappers of late night munchies, but you’re still surrounded entirely by books so you feel marginally obliged to be productive.
Some people say it’s stiflingly claustrophobic, overly dim, uncomfortably stuffy. It’s true, even in the dead of winter the place feels like a furnace. But have you ever seen anywhere in Butler quite as homey? Find an alcove with an armchair, settle in with a brownie from Blue Java and a good book (who am I kidding, it’s more likely to be that 15-page essay due tomorrow), and you’re golden.
The alcoves have a quaint charm of their own—a motley assortment of things and people sometimes amusing, sometimes strange, and sometimes just downright weird. My friends and I once discovered a book lecturing its readers on the topic of “Barbie vs. the Menstrual Kit” (perplexing, to say the least). And of course, the people. I always feel like it’s the same few sleep-deprived people I encounter in the alcoves, armed with steaming mugs of coffee and blankets—and even pillows, or toothbrushes. Now, that just terrifies me. Once, a woman in the neighboring alcove approached me and asked to use my Facebook account, so she could stalk the ex-husband she’d blocked. I can only hope it was the sleep deprivation talking.
When I’ve been writing a paper in Butler for a long time, I like to walk up to the bathroom on the west side of the fifth floor. “Writing a paper in Butler for a long time” means writing one good paragraph every few hours and letting a seductive current powered by articles like “13 Hollywood Marriages with the Biggest Age Gaps” carry me in between. (Rod Stewart’s wife is 26 years younger than him, in case you were wondering.) But I do think that there’s something wearing about sitting in Butler 301 for five hours, about the sound of all those fingers hastily smashing into computer keys.
I like to walk up to those bathrooms because they’re usually empty late at night; that’s where the library’s administrative offices are, and the fifth floor reading rooms close at reasonable hours. I’m sure that most people prefer empty bathrooms, for obvious practical reasons. But I like them because they’re easy respites where I can look at myself in the mirror. I hate looking at myself in the mirror when there are other people around; I always wonder how they think I should react to my own face. But when the bathroom is empty I can stare at myself for a few minutes. I can trace my fingers over my dark circles, and wonder how long I’ve had that embarrassing spot of ink on my brow bone. (Probably since my 8:40 a.m. class.)
One night, I went in there and the overhead light was flickering between light and dark, like the checkerboard tiles on the floor. When I looked in the mirror, it reminded me of this video where they light a model’s face from several angles. The point was that she looked different under each lighting set up, like a new person. I thought about that video when I looked at my face under the wavering fluorescent lights. It looked different than it did in Butler 301, where my laptop screen cast strange shadows under my chin and near the bridge of my nose. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s good to remind yourself that you’re a person once in awhile, and not just a face in a crowd of students with papers due the next day.
Picture: You have a paper due tomorrow. You haven’t started it yet, but you somehow convince yourself that seven to 10 pages isn’t really that much. You walk confidently up to the Butler doors, feeling good because you totally have the outline done in your head. You begin to search for a seat. For whatever reason, you decide to take the stairs up to the fourth floor—something you rarely do, because you can never figure out which of the 18 stairwells will take you to the right place. As you turn the corner to walk up the flight of stairs, there in front of you lies something that stops you in your tracks. It’s a used adult diaper, pathetically crumpled and abandoned at the foot of the stairs. Has this stopped being relatable? Back to first person, then.
It was so ridiculous. So odd. So inexplicable. It took me almost a minute to start laughing, because I was so intrigued by how a used diaper could have possibly ended up there. I could have Snapchatted it and moved on. I could have (and probably should have) gotten a facilities worker to clean it up. But like a true liberal arts student, I instead stopped and started searching for any possible meaning I could grasp. Was I going to be sitting through a meeting later where I couldn’t get up and pee? Was the stress and chaos of midterms making me subconsciously want to revert to childhood? I was desperate for a cosmic sign.
But nothing came to me. Maybe it was just one of those Dadaist non sequiturs that defines our weird, fragmented Columbia experience. Or maybe I had been studying for so long that I was hallucinating. In the end, I decided to just revel in the pure absurdity of the situation, the niche of hilarity and newfound hope I had discovered. Sometimes Butler can offer you more than stress and despair. Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe.
For all its grandeur, there are few reflections in Butler 301. There is no hall of mirrors to refract the earnest faces of the rows of students enrapt in their essays and problem sets. The varnished wood of the desks is worn dull by slouched bodies, the laminate is stripped of its sheen by strained forearms. The 15 columns of windows that dominate the room are set so high they are devoid of even the possibility of reflections; but for the ceaseless glare of the twin chandeliers, which dangle from opposite poles of the chamber like inverted sentries. In turn, the silence reinforces and encloses that sense of anonymity. The students you see here, night after night, become familiar through physicality, absent the conversation that would make their identities mean something. Butler 301 is a shrine to prosopagnosia—to facelessness.
The students I see here almost every evening are as intimately etched in my memory of my academic life as the syllabi of my courses. Perhaps more so—their clothes, movements, and anonymously whispered conversations are the markers to my academic and personal calendars. There is the man in the slim fit navy suit across the table from me, my Asian Humanities essay flickering on my screen, whose herringbone wristwatch strap seems inexplicably at odds with his used paperback textbook. There is the petite girl with the shockingly blond hair whose alternating backpacks match seamlessly with her outfit, depending on the day of the week that I choose to do my Contemporary Civilization reading. There is the middle-aged woman I watch collapse on her computer for an hour of desperate sleep, next to three Morton Williams bags, as I rush through a problem set.
When I say that these people are faceless, I mean that to me, after two years of almost wordless study beneath these daunting walls, the contours of their profiles are still as devoid of meaning to me as everything else about them. Every night we come to this hall to do our work, and every night we pass one another en route to wooden chairs where we crouch to that uninterrupted labor. And every so often we glance at one another—there is that moment of sonder, the recognition that we both have lives outside of this space and these books—and then we return, faceless, to our business.
This is a blatant fabrication for comedic effect (“satire”). Try to not believe the convincing science presented below.
Albert Ausseil and The Butler Chill
In 1864, the brilliant French physicist Albert Ausseil discovered that space cannot be separated. All space leaks into other space. His discovery, which he presented sharply and concisely in a paper titled “The Lie of Spatial Separation,” was astounding for its time. The French and European scientific community at large were baffled, forced to re-examine most of their recent work. It is estimated scientific progress was set back 30 years.
The discovery—that space merges seamlessly with all space, everywhere—is difficult to wrap your head around. Put simply, it just means that space is like a giant swimming pool of water with one crucial difference: You can’t take any of it out or move to it another swimming pool, or build a wall to create a new, separate pool. All space leaks into other space. And so far, this discovery has withstood the rigorous examination of the scientific method.
Well, just about. You see, there’s one phenomenon that can’t quite be explained by Ausseil’s wonderful discovery. The Butler Chill. The bone-crushing, hair-raising, spine-crumbling chill that consumes any human body stepping out of Butler Library in Columbia University in the City of New York between the hours of 1:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. on any given day. For some, as yet unexplained reason, the space inside the library refuses to step out—there is a sudden, sharp shift in the shape, temperature and nature of the universe. Scientists have no explanation as to why, why, there seems to be such a totality of separation between Butler and everything that surrounds it. Butler seems to exist in defiance of Albert Ausseil.
We are standing by the circulation desk when we see him. Or hear him. First, it’s just a low hum of rubber wheels on a sticky marble floor, far away. I don’t look up, nor do my friends. It’s late at night—we’re all too deeply exhausted to react to strange and distant sounds.
We keep talking.
One friend relates a sleepy story—something about the defective computer she’s spent the last 15 minutes working on—we laugh tiredly, are silent for a moment. And as if riding the lull in our conversation, a boy floats by on a crimson skateboard displaying the self-confidence of somebody who thinks there is nothing illogical about riding a skateboard through Butler Library in the early hours of the a.m.
I briefly second guess my lucidity.
He’s already at the end of the hall, and as we blink to make sure what we’re seeing is real, he is suddenly out of sight.
We laugh—uncertainly at first—because to laugh would be to accept that what we saw really happened and was not just a collectively conjured hallucination.
But then we hear the hum again, and Skateboard Boy rides past us, again. This time we try, and fail, to make eye contact with this strange being. He doesn’t see us; he exists in his own, absurd universe.
When he rolls past a third time—now he’s just doing laps— it seems that all of the remaining students on Butler floor three are prepared to document his existence. One boy has preemptively, and indiscreetly, set up a videocamera. Another girl, when the rubber tire hum is audible again, runs out of Butler 301 with Snapchat already open on her phone.
Again: He comes, he goes. We are still perplexed. My friend has a picture now, though: a red blur against the sharp, bright lights of the Ref Room.
I could try to extract meaning from the incident. After many weeks of quietly mulling it over, however, the best conclusion I’ve been able to reach is a concession: Anything can happen at Butler at 4:30 a.m.
A Vaguely Positive Perspective on Research Papers
When I tell people there is an infinitely large collection of scholarly work on Mormon feminism from polygamy to pro-choice advocacy, I get weird looks. There are plenty of reasons for this—from the Mormons to casually mentioning to polygamy to the daunting task liberal advocacy in Utah—but I choose to interpret it as doubt about the existence of modern day Mormon feminists. But fear not, the tomes of Butler Library have at least five books on the subject.
As I started my University Writing Progression III essay in November, I thought I would have to search Amazon and send my mom to Utah thrift stores to find the books on Emma Smith and the other 32 wives of Joseph Smith I wanted for my research project. But then I found the Columbia library search, and within 10 hours, I had a gigantic stack of books on every ounce of patriarchy in the Mormon church.
Until that moment, I had avoided Butler in favor of studying in bed in my underwear. Frankly, I still avoid Butler, as studying in your underwear in Butler is frowned upon. But there was something magical about finding literature on my favorite obscure subject in bulk. As I dragged myself into the stack—praying not to hear suspicious moaning noises—it was a moment of revelation that Joseph Smith himself might have been proud of. Despite Butler’s pain, all-nighters, and implied homework, there is knowledge there, an infinite wisdom that generations of Mormon-obsessed Columbia students (Tony Kushner, anyone?) used to find what they needed.
Butler might be hell sometimes—but it also holds a hell of a lot of good.
Furnald is quiet. There is no scramble for seats, no tall pictures of frightening ancient white people, no dark corners or stuffy spaces or half-dead homies sloshing through sleep deprivation. It’s got air conditioning. It’s got clean bathrooms. My room has a Broadway view.
I can work in a chair, on my bed, be buttnaked while I write my Lit Hum essay. I can put my feet up, use my outside voice, listen to my music without headphones. The pictures are my pictures. The stuff is my stuff. The door has my name on it, not Homer’s. I have a lamp when I study, a pillow when I sleep, a window to open when I feel trapped inside.
Furnald is my morning, my night, my bedroom, my library, my place of silence in a city of sounds. It is my beginning, my end, my secret laboratory where I attempt to achieve good grades. Furnald is bae, so why would I ever go to Butler?