Memorial lion

Last weekend, J and I sought respite from the heat by visiting the main branch of the Boston Public Library at Copley Square, where we toured Torn in Two, an exhibit of maps, photographs, and other items commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. The exhibit itself provided much to look at, and as did the library’s historic McKim Building.

Courtyard chairs

I spent a lot of time at the Boston Public Library during my first year of graduate studies at Boston College, when I had an academic scholarship and plenty of time to do research. Whereas the main library’s modern Johnson Building contains the circulating collection and is popular with general readers, families, and folks looking to borrow books, the half of the library I frequented was the non-circulating research library in the historic McKim Building.

During my first year at BC, the McKim Building was undergoing major renovations, so you couldn’t enter the building directly. Instead, you had to enter the Johnson Building then wind your way through several back rooms and corridors until you found yourself in a room with classical murals on the ceiling where you’d search the research library’s catalogue on microfilm: one bank of microfilm readers containing the first half of the alphabet, the other the second.


After you’d written the call numbers of the books you wanted on book request slips, you’d deliver these to a window in the Abbey Room, find a seat in the Bates Hall reading room, and then wait for your books to be delivered from the hidden stacks where only library staff could go.

Reference stacks

Now, everything is different from those “old days” when I was in grad school in the early 1990s. Now you can enter the McKim Building directly, where a grand staircase flanked by lions greets you.

Staircase lions

Now the research library is included in the main online catalogue, eliminating the need for microfilm searches and paper request slips since you can place a hold online. The Delivery Desk is no longer in the Abbey Room, both the Johnson and McKim Buildings offer free wifi, and even Bates Hall has Ethernet outlets for wired Internet access.

Reading room

Given all the hours I spent in Bates Hall surrounded by stacks of dusty books taking notes in a paper notebook, it still seems strange–almost sacrilegious–to see people with laptops surfing the Internet as if the McKim Building were just another wifi hotspot.


Although it would be infinitely easier to do research at the BPL these days–how much faster it is to type your searches into a computer rather than scrolling through microfilm!–I’m glad to have experienced the McKim Building back in the “old days” when it felt like a secret storehouse of dusty treasures available only to the patient few willing to do a little digging.


As much as I love my Kindle, laptop, and the ease of online database searches, I still hold a certain nostalgia for dusty stacks, card catalogues, and even microfilm machines. As much as I enjoy new technologies and new ways of doing research, the old ones had a deliberate slowness that forced you to appreciate them. I guess when it comes to libraries and technology, I (like the nation during the Civil War) am Torn in Two.

Click here for more photos from the Boston Public Library’s McKim building, or click here for photos from “Torn in Two: The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War,” which is on view at the Boston Public Library at Copley Square through December, 2011. Enjoy!