On a predictably hot and humid Saturday afternoon in D.C. I sat down at a large wooden table in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s reading room and (gently) placed the 400 year old book onto reading pads . I had taken special care to thoroughly wash and dry my hands as the librarian had instructed me, but the rest of me was still drenched in sweat from walking four blocks in the sun, and then nervously registering as a “special reader” with the library registrar. “Special” was accurate – I was certainly different than all of the annoyed-looking grey heads that stared at me when I entered the large room. Certainly my age set me apart from these scholars, but I didn’t do myself any favors when my jaw dropped and I gawked at the majesty of the library. An emerald green carpet spread across the long hall that was lined with two stories of bookshelves and lit by several chandeliers. Set above the main door was a gorgeous stain glass window featuring characters from Shakespeare’s works. The room was dotted with old, beautiful paintings of scenes from different plays. It was like a dream.
You see, most people don’t get to see the reading room at the Folger – where the largest collection of Shakespeare’s first folios among hundreds of other rare books are kept. It had taken me weeks to get an application through to use the resources in this sacred room for my senior thesis. Only recently has the Folger even allowed undergrads to use its library, requiring multiple letters of recommendation and a proposal for your project to be considered. The library also acts as a museum and performance space for the public; but one must pass the gaze of two stern security officers, a bag check, and an inquisitive secretary requiring ID before entering the hallowed hall where I found myself utterly terrified on that hot Saturday.
I decided to try the ole’ fake-it-till-ya-make-it approach and feigned confidence as I adjusted my new workspace. But every move I made and book I put down added sound to the soundless room and soon I spied disgruntled eyes peering at me from the tops of faded books. “It’s okay,” I thought, “I’m a quiet person, these are quiet people, I’ll just read silently and make as little noise as possible and these people who are at the top of my field of study won’t hate me.” Just then my phone rang, buzzing violently on the table and causing everyone’s heads to snap and stare at me. I scrambled to turn it off just in time to hear an exasperated sigh from across the room. Trying to put my phone away I dropped my notebook and pencils with what seemed like the loudest thud ever, sparking more glares from my experienced colleagues.
When I finally found my things on the dark floor I came back up and saw my first smiling face of the day. Seven smiling faces actually – staring at me through a glass wall. Sometimes, guides in the adjacent museum gave visitors a “peek” of the reading room, literally pulling back a curtain on the wall of the exhibit to look through a big window at the old professors reading their older books. It was like a weird academic zoo. And in that moment – as both a large family of tourists and my fellow “readers” stared at me and my undeniable grace – I thought to myself, “well, this is it. I’ve made it.” I reached up to turn on an old brass light to start reading. As I turned the sizable metal knob the whole thing came loose and tumbled to the wood beneath it with a bang. An elderly scholar jumped up from his seat a table over, grabbed his things, and moved to the other side of the large room with an audible “hrrumph.” Ten minutes later I returned my books saying I was “all set for today” and promptly ran out of the library.
I ended up working up the nerve to go back a few weeks later – and thanks to a much friendlier librarian and less crowded room, actually stayed for a few hours reading from the oldest books I’d ever touched. I never really felt at ease though – possibly because my research had somehow become a spectator sport with the gaze of both the experienced scholars and curious museum goers watching me. Long story short, elite academia is terrifying, I’m not as good at being quiet as I thought, and I still don’t know what my thesis is about.