June 4 isn’t my birthday, or a holiday, or the date of some major milestone in my family’s past. I will not celebrate it this year or the next. And yet June 4 is a date that comes up in my conversations more frequently than any other: It is probably when your library books are due.
I feel, at times, like I will have this date stamped in smudgy black ink in some corner of my mind for the rest of my life. I spend 13 hours each week working at Butler library. I measure the progress of my week not by classes attended or assignments completed, but by the number of times I intone, “This’ll be due back June 4. Have a good one!”
The libraries are a way station for any Columbia faculty member or student who is in active pursuit of knowledge, and from my perch at the desk, that variety of people is ever-present. I shelve Choe next to Chowdhury next to Christiansen. I search for Lahiri and Lowry and Levithan. When I haul in items from the bin outside, I might come across a book on the Israel Defense Forces or a book on Palestinian textiles or a collection of Middle English treatises on land ownership. People show up to the desk looking for material on West Indian immigration and on East African public transit and on the geology of Korea. I have, in short, handed books to, shelved books for, and given bathroom directions to people who are at this university to study just about anything and everything.
My favorite conversation during a given day is often with that stranger who is at my desk checking out 20 well-worn hardcovers on Pakistani pop culture. I will ask them what they are studying, because I would rather make small talk than sit there while they watch me check their books out in a long, somehow slightly voyeuristic silence. And by the time I get to the words, “June 4!” I know far more about South Asian film studies than I did before.
A trove of knowledge, from comics to court briefs, is quite literally held in this library, and I happen to man the physical access point. And while any student with a computer has as much, if not more access to this breadth of histories and opinions and expression, I would bet that my coworkers and I encounter a berth of ideas and ideologies that extend far beyond what most of our peers encounter in their undergraduate lives—even, I would wager, beyond that of almost anyone else on campus.
Effective exposure to the full swath of human knowledge that this university has to offer requires a physical space: directed Internet research or passive scrolling through articles on a Facebook feed has, in my experience, provided far fewer serendipitous encounters with surprising ideas than scanning through the shelves. When I wander onto the Fox News website, I can cringe and then close the tab; when I reshelve Trump: The Art of the Deal, I must acknowledge that it has occupied and will continue to occupy some 100 cubic inches of the universe.
At the library, I encounter none of the barriers to thought that often come up for undergraduates: no prerequisites as exist for classes, no filtering algorithms as exist on social media, no common interests as exist in clubs. Just walking through the stacks, I’ve stumbled into entire schools of thought I never would’ve known existed otherwise. There’s much more going on at this school than the gossip next to me at Ferris, the quiet chatter of study groups in the John Jay lounge, or even the scholarly discussions of my recitations in Knox.
Students here, by virtue of swiping into the library, have access to worlds upon worlds of information that have been in the hands—literally—of scores and scores of people. When you open a book, there is no way to know who was in that same position before you and no way to know who will be there after. The only certainty is that you share this act and this object across all of your opinions and times and histories.
As a first-year far from home, nothing makes me feel more connected to other people than this simple ritual: I am tasked with finding a book that has been pored over for hours before. It is with my own eyes that I read the title and with my own hands that I slide it off the shelf, in the same motions as generations previous. I flip open a cover that has been held by an unknowable number of strangers, so that I may check it out to another stranger, who with me joins a history more vast than either of us would ever otherwise find ourselves in. By the time I open the ink pad and pick up the due date stamp, the two of us have already added our own ink to the page. “June 4” is just the imprint.