Campus Life guest column

A Collection of Libraries

visiting 12+ libraries on MIT’s campus and beyond.

10247 rhr
RHR zine Vol. CCLXXXVIII, printed in a purple serif font.
10247 rhr
RHR zine Vol. CCLXXXVIII, printed in a purple serif font.

My hometown is small enough (or large enough, at a population of 90,000) to have one library. My memory of the library itself is muted — all brownish red bricks, dark gray carpets, and dim lighting. Yet emotionally, I associate the library with the vibrant delight of selecting (just!) a dozen or so books to borrow, usually of escapist fantasy. Alas, my family lived in the suburbs and my trips relied on the grace of my mom, who was willing to drive me only once every few weeks, at least until I got my own driver’s license. Walking, biking, or riding public transit would either take over an hour or be unsafe.

Now at MIT, I can reach at least 9 libraries within a 15-minute walk, as an abled person residing in McCormick Hall. In libraries, I enjoy the physicality of library books: the rustle of pages, their earthy smell, and the rows and rows of shelves to wander. This sensory experience contrasts nicely with the pressing digital life of an MIT student, where even literature readings are available on a sleek digital device. You can use your MIT ID to check out books! Library books can be borrowed for 60 days (which can often be extended for months) [1] . MIT Libraries also has a substantial online collection, where I’ve found extra readings for class.

The most popular MIT libraries among students are Hayden and Barker, which have a large capacity of study spaces. Personally, I find Hayden’s main floor a little too busy, though the basement is quieter. The middle row of shelves is closely packed together, and sometimes you need to loudly (but smoothly) crank a few rolling shelves to reach the one you want. In contrast, Barker’s main reading room (under the stately Building 10 dome) is pindrop silent, and I cringe every time the door bangs shut from someone entering or exiting. 

On the other hand, I adore Rotch. Rotch’s entrance is on the 2nd floor of building 7, which annoyingly I didn’t find until sophomore year. The main floor of Rotch has wall-spanning windows that welcome in sunlight that shines on the huge land use and public transit maps I spread out on the tables (I’m a Course 11). I’m guilty of visiting Rotch only every few months, but it’s a warm embrace when I do. As for Lewis and Dewey, I’ve only visited them once or twice, but they seem peaceful and cozy enough.

The Distinctive Collections is also part of the MIT libraries system, but it acts more as an archive — you can request to see an item, but you can’t take it out of their viewing room. The collections have boxes and boxes of direct evidence (a.k.a. primary sources) of cool and funky MIT history that you can sift through. While looking for zines (self-published, oft small magazine), I found a Random zine: this January 1968 issue was titled “R*ND*M HOUSE REJECT” and reprinted a letter from the publishing company Random House who wrote that “our trademark rights are involved” and requested that the dorm “refrain from naming your house ‘Random House’”. And so the dorm Random House is now Random Hall.

Name changes like this can get buried over time, and you can rediscover some of that lost knowledge at the Distinctive Collections. To look for cool stuff yourself (as an MIT-affiliate or not! [2]), you can search up most collection items on ArchivesSpace, request an item, and then book an appointment in the viewing room.

MIT has a few specialized libraries outside of the MIT Libraries system. There’s the small but mighty LGBTQ+ and WGS collections, housed in the lovely Rainbow lounge and Cheney room, respectively. I’ve spent the past few summers browsing through books, which are helpfully tagged by identities such as Indigenous and transgender. Student organizations run specialized libraries too, like the Science Fiction Society and Anime Club, though the Student Center flooding last January has put things on hold. I’ve helped with Anime Club’s manga library before, and it’s nice to have the first volume of a series available to read (with city public libraries, the first volumes are often checked out for months).

As an MIT student, you can get a Harvard library card, which you can use to ride the frequent M-2 shuttle to Harvard. I‘ve taken the M-2 to Widener, the largest of the Harvard libraries. The stacks are eerily large enough that, as one friend notes, she wouldn’t want to go alone. Personally, I find the eeriness amusing — Widener has this mystique, like I’m about to discover hidden knowledge. I don’t feel that vibe at Hayden, the largest of the MIT libraries — the stacks available to the MIT community were downsized during renovations several years ago [3]. To experience the Harvard libraries yourself, you can book an appointment, show your Kerberos login to the librarian and your face to the camera (this process took me a max of 15 minutes, excluding travel time), and voila! A Harvard library ID.

The Cambridge/Boston area also has public libraries! Public libraries tend to have more programs and resources geared towards the public at all ages (summer reading program whoo!). Also, I enjoy borrowing and reading the latest releases in popular fiction. I most frequently visit the Boston Public Library – Central branch located in Copley Square, which is the oldest branch in the BPL system. The juxtaposition of the marbled, statuesque older half and the carpeted, solid-colored newer half amuses me. In contrast, the Cambridge Public Library – Central branch in Harvard Square is built of glossy, multi-story glass and turning stairs with poetry steps. As a Greater Boston resident, you can get a BPL and CPL card by showing proof of residency at their respective locations.

Amidst the bustle of student life, libraries are warm, (relatively) quiet spaces rich with underutilized resources and built on the histories of their institutions. I’ve always delighted in browsing through the stacks, immersed in the physical presence of knowledge. Since starting MIT, these libraries have helped sustain my love of reading.