My writing an essay on Rabindranath Tagore, three or four months ago, led to an interesting experience that I find myself continuing to think about. As an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Michigan in the first few years of the 1980s, I would often study in the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. My favorite places were deep in the catacombs of the stacks, 4 South, or the Sixth Floor humanities collection. Since Google digitized the holdings of U of M and those of other major libraries, along with the proliferation of classics online, Amazon and ebooks, and statewide inter-loan services, I, for some time now, have less frequently found myself needing to visit the Library, as I used to, for decades, two or three times a year.
In Tagore’s case, I discovered there were some books and sources I couldn’t obtain by other means, so I took a day last October for the sixty-mile trip to the Hatcher grad library. I started with 4 South, enclosed seemingly in the center of the old library, with very low ceilings, like the cellar of an old monastery. The floor has the bulk of the holdings in religion, especially Islam, Hinduism, and other non-Western faiths. I had on my Android Nexus S phone a list of books and articles related to Tagore and world religions that I wanted to check, complete with call numbers and so forth, from Mirlyn, the library Catalog, which I had accessed online from home. As usual, I was the only person on the floor. One or two might have wandered through that afternoon, cutting across on the way elsewhere. I found the sources in the stacks and piled them up on a desk, about twenty-five books or so.
Before combing through them, I booted my Netbook and turned on the Portable WiFi Hotspot on my phone, so that I could check U of M’s online Catalog, if needed. No reason to run downstairs anymore. I also took out my DocuPen portable wand scanner, so that I wouldn’t have to carry anything downstairs if I wanted to copy an article, which I did with several, emptying the memory, when it became full, onto my Netbook, in PDF format.
Scrutinizing chapters and articles, bibliographies, I found a few things I wanted to pursue further, so I obtained their call numbers with my Netbook, through the Catalog, went back into the stacks, dug around, loved every minute of it. And so it went. Since a few other sources were on the Sixth Floor, which houses mostly literature, having exhausted 4 South for that excursion, I packed up and changed locations, taking about another twenty-five books off the stacks upstairs, from the Tagore holdings of about three hundred books, and burrowed my way through them. I remember being reminded of my time on an NEH summer seminar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in 1995, and using the Perkins Library at Duke University, especially its excellent collection of Indian literature.
After some time, though, as the afternoon went by, I discovered I was developing a list of books that even the Hatcher Library didn’t have among its several million volumes. I fired up my Netbook again, and, while sitting in a study carrel, logged on to MeLCat, the State of Michigan’s library inter-loan system for the majority of universities, colleges, and local libraries. Working through my list, I found most of the books I needed at other state institutions and ordered them, right then and there, from a shabby old Harland Hatcher carrel, on the Sixth Floor, where over thirty years ago I had enjoyed so many fruitful hours of study.
A couple of books that I particularly wanted were not available at the graduate library nor through MeLCat. I went online to the HathiTrust Digital Library, found one of them, and added the eBook to my account. The other was on Google Books. I downloaded it and later transferred it to my ereaders.
The MeLCat books began showing up at my local library in Rochester, Michigan, about a week later, when I was ready for them, having read the material I had taken home in digital format. An email notified me when the books were received and available for pick up. I read them in the comfort of my own library.