The first time I ever bustled into the silent, carpeted interior of the Donald E. Stokes Library was my first day on the job. I had to plug in the coordinates on google maps to find Wallace Hall, follow the signage, and descend the stairs to the library whose name I had only first learned on the student job listing site. My only “training” on that fateful first day consisted of a thorough 30-minute tour and a tutorial on how to shelve according to the Library of Congress system. The woman in charge of the student workers, Linda Chamberlin, disclosed to me at the end of our first meeting: “you’ll have most of the time to yourself.” And in the 270+ hours I’ve logged on Timesheet X since June 2022, I can safely say that I had more than just most of those hours to myself.

I started working at Stokes library this past summer, as a way to supplement my on-campus income. The limited responsibilities were definitely a draw for me while applying—who wouldn’t want to be paid $14 an hour for sitting at a desk? And yes, my actual working experience in Stokes has closely aligned with that arrangement. My main task that summer boiled down to staying quiet, occupying the desk in case a patron needed me, and finding ways of entertaining myself with the dearth of other work or school responsibilities. It is within the confines of Stokes that I taught myself to knit while reading (a la the Marches in Little Women.)

A paucity of patrons came to the circulation desk due to summer vacation and lingering covid restrictions, nonetheless Stokes was rarely devoid of people working or studying. Though the volume of people occupying the arrays of black office chairs was never high, often the same people would come in and do work for large swaths of time. During nearly all my night closing shifts that summer, the same two students always worked together by the computer cluster.  I presumed that they were graduate students due to their atypical hours and work frequency, but I never spoke to them or learned their names except for saying good night as they exited. Maybe I should’ve satiated my curiosity of why they worked until closing every summer evening and asked their names, as we did occupy the same space for hours on end, but I’m shy, and I felt like an inquiry would be a violation of the contractual silence of Stokes.

The silence of Stokes Library dominates. Any swivel of a chair, opening of a door, setting down of a water bottle can be clearly discerned. In the rare event of a book entering the book drop, the sound reverberates throughout the interior white square columns. Few conversations take place between students. The consistently hushed atmosphere of Stokes runs contrary to my experience in other reading rooms whose contractual silence is often more explicitly posted via signage, but more frequently violated. Those who come to Stokes appear to have a mutual understanding of the library as a place where one is left to their own devices to focus and work on what needs to be done.

During the summer, I couldn’t help but notice the irony that accompanies being employed and “working” in the same space as those who are mere visitors, but whose formal responsibilities far exceed your present ones. This aura of productivity present in Stokes generated a desire within myself to take advantage of the time, space, and silence, to dedicate myself to informal responsibilities such as the completion of a book or knitting project.

After that summer, I decided to keep Stokes library as a fixture of my weekly google calendar and keep working during the school year. Surprisingly, working at Stokes library during the school year has not drastically increased the amount of time I spend per week checking books in and out, shelving, or assisting patrons. Maintaining a desk presence, with my reduced weekly hours and wealth of school work has become less of a creative exercise, and more like a much-needed space and time reserved for doing formal school work. More people occupy the black office chairs and birchwood standing desks, but the near-silent ambiance of the ventilation system protruded by typing noises, backpack zippers, and front door creaks remains.

The majority of my shifts during the school year have been either at opening at 8:15 a.m. or closing at 12 a.m. Consequently, Stokes frequently and functionally bookends my day. Perhaps the sanitized, un-personalized, silent confines of Stokes library would seem unappealing at these extreme hours—it may not be the level of repose one would want in the morning. However, the routine of it all—the trek up the unpopulated Washington to Stokes in the morning, the greeting by Linda in one of her immaculately paired scarf and cardigan combos, and the procedural computer log-ins and key locks is all oddly comforting. Moreover, the locus’s tranquility and spacious circulation desk spur me into doing work before my classes begin, allowing myself to get in a productive mindset for the remainder of the day.

I have spent a lot of time in the same square yard radius of the circulation desk at Stokes, gazing upon the same view of Dell computer displays, voluminous printers, arrays of bookshelves, and carpet squares in various shades of gray. Being in the same space for hours for a job is common, but when your job is sitting within the same space for hours on end it’s hard to not grow increasingly sensitive to one’s surroundings.

Last semester on Thursday nights from 9:30pm to 12am, I shared my shift with the same senior football player. In usual Stokes fashion, we never had a conversation until one of the last few days before winter break which was precipitated by another student worker. I learned that shift at Stokes was that senior’s last, and he had been working there since Freshman year. I expressed surprise, noting that I already feel a deep connection to Stokes after having worked less than a year and couldn’t imagine the magnitude of the connection he has fostered. The other worker felt similarly, saying that Stokes has seen him in both “highs and lows” throughout his similarly short time of working. To that, the senior football player fondly recounted the old layout of Stokes back in his freshman year, where the circulation desk used to actually be circular and sat where the two printers and Dell computer displays now reside.

I often discuss working for Stokes around other fellow students in a similar jocoserious fashion. It’s comical to express intense fondness for a little-known, out-of-the-way library whose architecture, furniture, and technological amenities are replicable or out-done by the copious other libraries on campus; but this tenderness is truly genuine. Though I am formally employed at Stokes, each shift still feels elective, and overall, I have elected to spend my time at Stokes for hundreds of hours. From my time at Stokes, I have learned how the atmosphere of the places we study permeate our subconscious in unpredictable ways. While doing p-sets in Frist, typing away in Firestone B floor cubicles, and doing readings in East Pyne, we are not merely occupying those spaces while primarily focusing our energies on our responsibilities at hand. Our interactions with these spaces are not passive, but we form subliminal associations with these interiors, based on their personal functionality with us, which is intensified by the sheer magnitude of time we choose to spend inside them.

If I just consider its mere landscape of gray linoleum tables, metal shelves and leather-bound anthologies, I find my tenderness for Donald E. Stokes library mystifying. However, somehow Stokes library cultivates a small fan-base, with both longevity and intensity.   I am reminded by the unique function that Stokes Library inhabits in my weekly routine wherein I am one of the tens of individual diligent regulars who mutually agree and find comfort in the maintenance of the silent soundscape and work on what needs to be done for the week.

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