The Most Dangerous Building on Campus

St. Lawrence Magazine - Summer 2010

 

After one year at St. Lawrence, the question I have not been asked: what is the most hazardous place on campus? This came to mind when I learned along the way, often without fanfare or warning, that we are inspected routinely for fire and food safety, while the art studios and science labs are also constantly and closely evaluated for similar reasons. The underwriters and government agents believe quite seriously in the potential danger of a university, which is why none of this is trifling. We are checked for just about everything—radioactivity, steam pressure in the boilers, even the special effects used in stage productions. Most obvious to those serving in the line of responsible academic administration (though without any rational basis of suspicion), our chemistry students have to be carefully watched owing to the perennial chance that something could blow up or something in distillation could serve misguided social ambitions.

It may astonish, but the library is, arguably, the most dangerous building on the campus map because youth, like their forever curious elders, are going to equate danger with excitement. Could it be that we at St. Lawrence need to keep a finer eye on what goes on in ODY, Launders Science Library, and the Special Collections in art and music? These are the rooms, after all, where the most combustible activity on campus will likely occur. Intellectual chain reactions exist in an air of danger, daring and human hazard; transforming elements of thought require the chase, the hunt, and the adventure of traversing narrow cliff-side paths and box canyons.

Highly oxygenated possibilities in these campus areas will affect the strategic thinking of St. Lawrence more than anything else. We will always need the excellent academic facilities, comfortable residential offerings, and beautiful green spaces. But the question about the future of the library will encompass all, both our purpose and ultimate success. The destiny of the library, especially in this charged moment of uncertainty, ought to serve as the pivot point for determining what the St. Lawrence curriculum will be and be able to do in the next 20 years.

Why is this so? Nowhere on campus is the pace of change more apparent or disquieting than in the library. The danger institutionally is that we bet wrong; the danger also generates a certain thrill in the challenge. The expectations of rapid access to information, the tension between digital and print media, even the very nature of reading itself step upon shifting ground. About the act of reading, we will have to figure out whether searching digitally in a book, for instance, may somehow forsake the important subtleties of a linear discourse needing to stretch several hundred pages in order to be properly understood. For now, that is not how most of us relate to a text appearing online, though Kindle and I-Pad are making many fast converts.

Science students face a slightly different problem of reading in the electronic library, one caused by a super-overabundance of published research. The difficulty for them will be to find in the midst of so much unbridled data the inflection point of significance, perhaps like taking an air sample from a jet engine.

Meanwhile, as we sort out the precarious balance of source material (and the budgets required to support the dual kinds of expressed knowledge), there is a clear line of inspiration traced back to the origins of American college libraries. They have an early record of being revolutionary places. When Yale was first conceived, there were only a few professors and a small vacant property without buildings. And yet, remarkably, the founders possessed a library. In fact, about 300 years ago, Jeremiah Dummer appealed directly to the British community of scholars for gifts-in-kind to the college library. The generous response included personal copies of works by Newton, Locke, Boyle and Defoe, more than 500 titles in all. Thus, the grapes were gathered, the wine offered.

Only a few years later, a precocious sophomore from a small town in Connecticut discovered John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). He wrote home that it gave him “more satisfaction and pleasure…than the most greedy miser in gathering up handfuls of silver and gold from some new[ly] discovered treasure.”(1) The young reader was Jonathan Edwards, whose insights from Lockean psychology and Newtonian physics turned New England philosophy upside down forever. All of American intellectual history must ultimately pass through Edwards to be measured. The ignition point of this explosion was the otherwise unassuming, yet somehow hazardous, college library.

In truth, the risky conditions in the St. Lawrence library are not really material. Rather, the dangers, as if picturing a closed book of matches on top of a gas can, remain substantive, experimental, individual and somewhat intentional. The library must at times cause the moral equivalent of a potent chemical reaction in each student. To succeed in getting our students ready we must replicate that reaction over and over, each time with a reliable impact.

How to get that formula just right will happily exercise the habit and discipline of St. Lawrence’s long-range thinking; it also inspires a fresh discussion about our vision for the entire university curriculum. After all, as the library goes in organizing knowledge, collecting useful curiosities and managing information, so goes the effort of transcending the immediate hazards of academic stasis to a more vital, impassioned new day. In the end, the library keeps on its shelves all the ingredients of a liberal education that hold as much potential for “going off” as the fizz in a Wednesday afternoon organic lab.                                                                                                  —WLF

Quoted by Edmund S. Morgan from a 1959 essay published in American Heroes (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2009), 27.