I’ve been coming to Penn State’s Pattee Library since I was a kid. My dad worked as a reference librarian there, and I learned my way around the Library of Congress cataloguing system before I learned my times tables. I remember when they first started to computerize the catalogue, how novel that seemed. Dad was active in the American Library Association’s Machine-Assisted Reference Services (MARS) committee way back in the dark ages before the p.c. revolution. Now, so many library materials are available through electronic databases, slogans such as “the true university is a collection of books” seem mossy indeed.
The library has almost doubled in size since I was a kid, with the addition of the new Paterno wing. Everything’s been changed: what’s shelved where, what the different sections are called, how you get from one part of the library to another. They even repainted the ceiling above the central stairwell in the oldest part of the library a few years back. It had been monochrome, but I kind of prefer the new look.
As an aging alumnus, I most treasure those parts of campus that remind me of the way it was when I was a student. It’s been undergoing a building boom for the last ten years or more, but two of the main ingredients of the central campus landscape that haven’t changed are locally quarried limestone blocks and American elms. The limestone seems especially appropriate because it’s faithful to the underlying geology. Preserving the presence of the American elms seems noble in a kind of Sisyphean way, since Dutch elm disease is such a threat. As soon as a tree contracts it, down it comes and a new elm sapling is planted in its place.
Since universities may now exist partly or even wholly online, the phrase “brick-and-mortar” has become the usual modifier to distinguish the traditional kind. Built of limestone blocks below and brick above, Old Botany is easily the coolest building on campus. It’s not very big, and no classes meet there, so a lot of people don’t give it a second glance. It reminds me for some reason of the kind of student I used to be, gazing out at the sky, my mind elsewhere.
I was always dreaming about a shortcut to knowledge, like everyone else since Adam and Eve. These kids today – well, they have that shortcut. Some other dreamers actually set about designing it. It’s called the Internet. Or maybe Google. Or the Wikipedia. Heck, I don’t know – call it the Tower of Babel if you want! Now, hand me another brick…