Go Ask Alumni

Ex Libris

To mark the opening of the University’s newest and most spectacular home for books, the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, we asked alumni for their fondest library memories.

Illustration by Matthew Elliott

I received my PhD in Modern European History in 1978. Five years later, we took our kids to visit the campus, and I thought it would be fun to look up my dissertation in Regenstein. Mission accomplished, but it all went wrong when my daughter, then about eight, observed that nobody had ever checked it out.

Steven D. Korenblat, AM’71, PhD’78

I worked in the Regenstein as a book shelver almost all four years and for one year in Special Collections. My favorite find occurred when one of the supervisors showed me a rare volume in the stacks. It was a first edition copy of Moby-Dick that Herman Melville made out to one of his shipmates. He speaks of characters Stubb and Flask during the loss of one of the crew overboard, and he wrote in the margin, “Remember when this happened?” Never will I forget that experience.

Andrew Lamb, AB’03

It was 1960. I was 19 and had a job in the Education Library (which no longer exists). Things were always very slow on my shift, and I had plenty of time to read. I picked up Bruno Bettelheim’s Love Is Not Enough. I was enthralled, and despite warnings from the head librarian I kept reading. I switched my major from Greek lit to psychology, signed up for a course Bettelheim taught, and got my next job at the Orthogenic School.

Fifty years later, I still love doing psychotherapy with children, teaching, and supervising others. I cannot imagine what I would be doing now if I had landed, say, in the Business Library.

Marge Slobetz, AB’63, AM’66

When I was a grad student at the University, “the library” was Harper Library. One memory is that they had an early copying machine, doubtless the first one I’d ever seen. It looked like a big desk, and it was manned by an attendant in a white coat to whom you handed your original for copying.

Harper Library had three levels of underground stacks. They ran the full length of the building, under Wieboldt and Classics, around the corner, and under at least the first couple buildings along Ellis. Rumor (and my perhaps faulty memory) says that the lowest level of the stacks had a dirt floor. Also that you could die down there and not be discovered for a long, long time.

I did find down there a book that had been acquired in the early days of the University—I think 1893—and never borrowed. I was the first to ever check it out.

Richard S. Stein, AM’64

As a student in the Graduate Library School in the early 1980s, I spent a lot of time in Regenstein. I worked as a full-time assistant in the cataloging department, which at the time was headed by [now director of the University Library] Judith Nadler. I attended classes in the Library School, which was annexed to Regenstein, and studied at night in the stacks. One day, as I was rushing from work to an afternoon class, I encountered a gentleman who was lurking in the library foyer. He stared at the ceiling, checked out the floor, looked over the main floor of the library, and generally appeared aimless. I stopped and asked if he was lost or needed any assistance and he politely said no, so I went off to my class. A few weeks later, while I was filing cards in the card catalog (yes, it was the ’80s), I saw some people standing together near the circulation desk and recognized one of them as the man I had seen earlier. I told my coworker I had tried to help him because I thought he was lost. She howled with laughter because that gentleman was none other than Library director Martin Runkle, AM’73.

Jonquil D. Feldman, AM’84

I spent much of my University of Chicago career studying in the Harper Reading Room. But I will confess that I soon developed a routine: after lunch I would settle down to study and, in very short order, cross my arms on the table, put my head down, and before you knew it I was asleep. I wonder now if I snored during my cat naps—but if I did, nobody complained. I recall waking from one such nap to learn that JFK had been shot.

Nancy Gutfeld Brown, AB’62, AM’63

I was a PhD student in the Divinity School doing my research on medieval Cistercian nuns during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Several times while roaming the stacks in Regenstein, I came across a calf-bound volume on the shelf. Because I had taken Classics professor Braxton Ross’s course in paleography, I could recognize a premodern book when I saw one: calf cover, early modern binding techniques, erratic type, etc. I never found an actual medieval manuscript in the stacks, but I was always on the lookout.

Whenever I found something suspiciously old, I turned it in at the checkout desk saying it should be in Special Collections. I must say that the desk staff rarely seemed enthusiastic about my finds, but I was filled with righteous zeal at increasing Special Collections’ stash and preserving a really old book from the predations of time and ill use.

After doing research in French and Belgian libraries where only the staff is allowed inside the stacks, I was grateful for the time I was allowed to spend in Regenstein looking at all the books in one category without knowing beforehand what I might find.

Janet Summers, PhD’86

One of the most infamous and memorable experiences I have surrounding the Reg was happily sitting down to a full Sunday uninterrupted to prepare for some bio/chem class, somehow completely forgetting that we had a basketball game that day. The rest of the Maroons charged on wondering what happened to me (I think I was the captain at that time). Coach Brower was not too pleased, but somehow I was forgiven. I think I did pretty well on the test, however, with the help of an extra five hours of study time.

Catherine Fitzgerald, AB’93

My fondest memory of Harper Library was when a group of Humanities undergrads all flipped each other the bird. I couldn’t tell you the time of day, because time doesn’t seem to exist in a U of C library, but I remember we were all a little loopy from lack of sleep. What began as someone complaining about the callus that had formed on top of their writer’s bump turned into a table-wide comparison of writer’s bumps—each of us vying for the honor of the largest bump. Since a writer’s bump forms on the middle finger of your writing hand, it appeared we were all flipping each other off.

Today’s computer-aided generation is unfamiliar with the writer’s bump, but they all anticipate carpal-tunnel wrist surgery in their not too distant futures. During my undergraduate years, I virtually lived in Harper Library. The psychological impact of its history and regal architecture refreshed and inspired my academic pursuits. I couldn’t understand why my son (Class of 2013) kept referring to it as the Harper Reading Room. Upon visiting the campus, I was shocked to see it stripped bare of books.

Still, I’m glad my son gets to share my experience of being welcomed into the academic heritage of UChicago by studying in Harper. My son and his friend even featured Harper in The Assignment, the short film that won this year’s fifth annual 48-Hour UChicago Student Film Festival (view it at vimeo.com/22114287). See, I’m both a proud graduate of UChicago and a proud parent—and I don’t really miss my writer’s bump at all.

Patricia Farrow Boshardy, AB’85

As an undergraduate physics major, I would go to the biology library to study so that I wouldn’t be distracted by all of the interesting physics books. Then one day in the biology library I noticed a book on the new shelf: Cell Heredity by Ruth Sager and F. J. Ryan. The book introduced me to a new world, the excitement of biology and genetics. After graduation, I turned my full attention to genetics, earning a PhD in microbial genetics. I am now a professor of genetics at Rutgers University. By the way, Ruth Sager received an SB in mammalian physiology in 1938 at the University of Chicago and is quoted as stating it was “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Another library memory was discovering the poetry collection in an alcove on the top of Harper Library. When I was overwhelmed with studying physics, I would sometimes escape to the poetry reading room and be transported from the hard sciences into the realm of the other culture.

David Axelrod, AB’62