Madonna and whore, house of the holy and den of iniquity, Sterling Memorial Library has been entangled for a lifetime in a luxurious struggle between the sacred and the profane. On first sight, Yale’s central book facility resembles a deconsecrated late-medieval church, but in fact it’s an ersatz Epcot-Gothic version of same—a towering monument to Yale’s insuperable Anglophilia and perpetual anxiety that Old Blue was born too late, despite its 300th anniversary this year (bested for oldest-college honors by not only that harlot Harvard but a God-fearing couple named William & Mary). Dedicated in 1931, SML is rococo-a-go-go: vaulted multistory ceilings with painted webs, bulbous tracery, gargoylish corbels, buttresses a-leapin’, stained glass everywhere.
Punitive imagery abounds. Engraved over one of the first-floor anterooms in a creepy Third Reich hand:
If I must be a prisoner I would desire to have no other prison than that library
For whatsoever things were written, were written for our learning
There studious let me sit and hold high converse with the mighty Dead.
Point taken, albeit with a grain of salt, since stern-faced Sterling is younger than many of the current undergrads’ grandparents, and since the most notable high converse within its walls has been of a strictly carnal nature. SML’s coup de grâce is its 150-foot book tower: 16 cramped, musty floors crammed with some 4.5 million books. The stacks—or The StaXXX, per the much publicized undergrad skin flick supposedly shot there under the auspices of the mysterious Porn ‘n’ Chicken Society—are notorious as the site for rampant amorous activity. The allure of the forbidden (sex in church!!), the arousing fear of getting caught, the necrophilic aura emanating from piles of rotting, neglected books—the staxxx are hot. Or at least, as one Porn ‘n’ Chicken associate put it, “It seems to me that the stacks are victim of a rather circular process. People have sex in the stacks because they see it as a Yale tradition; by doing so, they also help to keep that tradition alive.”
Bibliophiles might argue that the stacks have fallen victim to another kind of slow-burn desecration. Yale’s central book facility is an old-age home for decrepit books: Entire shelves of broken-backed volumes are tied together with string. Bindings and scraps of book-flesh litter the floor. The Judaica and Italian-poetry sections have shed more than their share of blood and tears; the Works of Flavius Josephus, a massy sepia-colored tome, sweats a thick, pollenlike grit. The Italian titles can be divided into two groups: those apparently once submerged in a bleach-treated bath, and those that apparently survived a Vatican book-burning romp. The sonnets of Pisani, printed in Napoli in 1659, fall into the latter category; if you take the volume off the shelf and place it upon a nearby desk, the poor little Signet-sized book begins molting, and leaves a trail of ash confetti wherever it goes.
Everyday manhandling does pose a threat, but to a great extent, these rarely visited books (the illustrated Les Dames de Byron from 1836, its gilt edges worn away and red cover diffused into a hideous tie-dye pink, was last checked out in May 1983) have been ravaged by what librarians officially term “inherent vice.” (Coined for Sterling’s loose morals? If those walls could talk.)
To sum it up: All paper is cellulose. Cellulose contains lignin, which creates acid by-products as it deteriorates over the years. Those by-products then attack the fiber lengths, which shrink; the paper becomes less flexible; the pages stiffen and turn yellow as they cook and sizzle in their own animal juices; leather covers turn a singed black—self-immolation by original sin. If the paper was washed with water that contained iron, the deposits will eventually start rusting and leave coffeelike stains. If the paper was bleached, it will start eating itself.
Of course, nature and nurture always collude, and the Sterling tower has played eager host to no end of bad influences. The books within are sinners in the hands of an angry autocatalytic process: For 60 years, until air-conditioning was installed in 1991, the windows were open virtually all the time, letting in rain, ultraviolet light, pollutants from New Haven’s bustling industries, salty air from the nearby ocean, and occasionally, nesting pigeons. In the summer, temperatures and humidity reached into the 90s. (An aside in the Yale University Library Gazette of April 1931 notes, “The installation of elaborate and expensive equipment for dehumidification did not seem justified,” though one suspects a fraction of the wainscoting budget could have covered it.) “All those elements lower the reaction curve,” says David Walls, assistant head of preservation. “You put materials in a situation like that and you see a lot of the horrors that we’ve got.”
Horrified, scarred-for-life books like these are the beloved subject of Nicholson Baker’s just-published jeremiad, Double Fold. Many of the Sterling residents also seem to belie his central, two-pronged thesis: that most books stabilize after a certain period of deterioration, and don’t simply disintegrate; and that, consequently, “endangered” books should not be cut out of their bindings, microfilmed, and then often discarded, as is standard practice in many public libraries. “I don’t see anything like what Baker describes,” counters Walls. “The paper continues to get more and more brittle until it can’t even support its own weight. We have material in the stacks that is so fragile that when the shelvers come in and scoot the books over, the movement simply crushes the paper and destroys it. If you pick up the edge of a page, it snaps off.” Indeed, in 1985, Sterling was the site of the first large-scale study of book deterioration, in which nearly half of a 36,500-book sample did not pass the page-corner test that provides Baker’s book with its title.
Baker rails against what he views as a catastrophic self-contradiction inherent in destroying books in order to preserve them—which is how he views microfilming. Walls says, “We do microfilm books, on an individual basis. The book has to be in an endangered brittle state. The paper can no longer maintain its attachment, it can’t bind, the pages are cracking off. It’s like a book made of glass—if you drop it on the floor, it explodes into little cornflakes.
“At that point, it becomes critical to save the information. Once you’re microfilming books in that condition, you often can’t keep them; the effort destroys them. But I don’t know of anything else you can do to preserve the massive amount of information libraries have in brittle condition. This is controversial—some scholars feel it’s a terrible thing to do. Baker certainly does.”
Sterling does often meet Baker halfway on his plea to “Leave the books alone, I say, leave them alone.” “The books you see tied with string—they’ve been microfilmed, there’s nothing more we can do to save them, but we still want to keep them,” says Erika Heinen, the collections care librarian. (Further confirming Sterling as a lovers’ playground, Heinen and Walls are married.) And more efforts to rescue books from the stacks are under way. The posh Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Yale has requisitioned all pre-1600 material in the tower, while many low-use items are being moved to a climate-controlled shelving facility in nearby Hamden.
“Nicholson Baker is correct in one sense: Everything will eventually have artifactual value,” Walls concedes. “Take anything, take a Sears catalog, and transport it 2000 years, and it will be sitting in a major museum.”
Walls turns transcendental. “When you die, you don’t partly die—everything goes back to the elements. It’s the same with books. We have to preserve what we can with the dollars we’ve got and the technology available.” Vice may be inherent in any preservation effort, just as it sullies the books in Sterling’s tower and the horny patrons skulking within. Reprobate Yalies will be conversing with the mighty dead for centuries, but many of those ghosts, like Sterling’s architecture, will appear in proxy form.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 10, 2001