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Katharine Hermann '09: A love letter to two of Brown's libraries

Over the course of my four years at Brown, I have spent an estimated 2,040 hours in the Rock. Add another 476 hours for the Hay, where I have worked for the last two years, and that makes about 2,516 hours spent in Brown University libraries. I love the Brown libraries and have two points to make on their behalf: Appreciate the Rock more. Use the Hay more. 

There are quite a few loyal Rock users, but the library is still underutilized. And those students that I frequently see around could be a bit more appreciative. Students constantly lodge complaints against the Rock. With some of them, I agree. The second floor is freezing. The architectural style clashes with many of the surrounding University buildings. But my experiences at other university libraries, while limited, give me the distinct impression that the Rock is unparalleled in terms of comfort, convenience and community. 

I have done research at Columbia's Butler Library and have visited Harvard's Widener Library a few times. These institutions are perhaps more picturesque than the Rock, but they are lacking in areas where the Rock shines. The Rock provides huge, open and light-filled workspaces, not tiny compartments in subdivided rooms, such as those that I saw at Columbia. The Rock offers not only excellent research materials but comfortable seating arrangements that facilitate long reading sessions and, depending upon your inclination, light socializing. 

The Rock has plenty of desktop computers — big, bulky, easy-to-use PCs with big screens and big mouses — and I have never had a difficult time finding an available computer there. Despite having a little white laptop, I wrote my entire thesis on these computers and am beginning to find them cool in a counter-cool way. I know that their availability and accessibility are the products of planning by library administration and staff to provide the academic support tools—beyond just books — that students need. 

The Rock might not offer the old-school academic character that many of us search for at college. But if that charm is what you want, welcome to the Hay.  

The John Hay Library needs to be demystified. If more students understood the Hay, more would use it. The Hay is situated to the right of the Rock as you exit the Van Wickle Gates. The Hay is not to be confused with the John Carter Brown Library, which is situated on the Main Green, and is independent from the Brown libraries in terms of administration and funding. According to the Encyclopedia Brunoniana, The Hay houses Brown's special collections, with "particularly strong collections in American literature and history, popular culture, military history and iconography, history of science and the art and history of the book." The librarians are kind and extremely helpful, if protective of the collection and loyal to the library's regulations. 

The regulations are many, but they are not so difficult to understand. The Hay is a closed stacks library, meaning that the materials that you request are paged for you. You cannot check materials out from the Hay. Materials must be read in the beautiful, multi-storied reading room, complete with solid wood tables and brass desk lamps. You cannot take jackets or bags into the reading room; they must be checked in the coat room. And pencils only, please.

But here is the most important piece of information about the Hay, which I think is the most commonly misconceived — anyone can use the reading room, even if they are not using Hay materials.  

The Hay is a vestige of library systems past. It is the classic university library that I hear Brown students complain about not having. You do have it. So use its materials, or use it only for its reading room. Basically, just use it.

As I prepare to leave Brown, I think about how I can replace the community, stimulation and academic support that the Brown libraries have brought to my undergraduate experience. I'm not sure that I will find these things in one place again. So, to those with a few years left at Brown, I say, use them, appreciate them and lastly, enjoy them. 


Katharine Hermann '09 is a COE and Urban Studies concentrator from Portland, Oregon.


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