Notes from the Undergrad
Are You There Robarts? It’s Me, Joe

You’re rough hewn and intimidating but I respect and appreciate you − and wish more students here did, too


They have many names for you, my friend. Fort Book, Jail, the Monolith of Despair. But none of these cognomens do you justice, for all you ever wanted was to collect and house knowledge. And yet, the students here give you no respect.

Is it your fault that people put off their 12-page papers until the day before they’re due, and have to spend the night in your austere interior? Of course not. They should be cursing their poor work ethic, not your name.

And can you be blamed for your rough-hewn, intimidating look? No, Mathers & Haldenby Architects are the villains who chose to construct you in the brutalist style. What were they thinking with all that exposed concrete? Couldn’t this architectural extravagance have taken a classier form? No one would make jokes if they’d coated you in platinum and topped you with towering, glittering spires, or perhaps flame throwers.

Do you get jealous of prettier athenaeums? Your little brother the Toronto Reference Library has all those artificial plants and waterfalls, that playboy, and your brutal buddy, the Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego, looks like a space ship! It gets to be in sci-fi movies, but your best appearance was as a prison in Sliders. As if you didn’t get enough of that from the students here.

Robarts, I think of you as Frankenstein’s monster − a gentle, intelligent creature doomed to a lonely existence by your creator’s odd aesthetic. Have you read that one? It’s surely located somewhere among your nearly five million books. Or maybe you’d prefer an analogy to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as you’re equal parts kindly but deformed Quasimodo and the cathedral he’s trapped in.

Actually, both of those characters end up murdering people, and you wouldn’t do that… right? Not even if someone was going around spoiling the endings of books, or insisting that “the movie version was better.” No, you gentle giant, of course you wouldn’t.

Ah, Robarts. I walk through your labyrinthine belly, and marvel at your one hundred lifetimes of learning, your carefully selected fast food franchises. The scholastic supplies thoughtfully available in your vending machines. Truly, your only crime was caring too much. And yet, the nasty urban legends they tell about you! Like that you’re sinking under your own weight − are they trying to give you an eating disorder?

And then there’s that humiliating U of T Facebook group where hundreds of students proclaim their desire to, shall we say, act out the Kama Sutra in your hallowed stacks before they graduate. It degrades your proud purpose, but you pay no heed. You keep your gaze stolidly on St. George and Harbord, and not on those backs lustily pressed up against the spines.

What do you ponder, Robarts, with that endless thousand-yard stare? Do you daydream of duelling peacocks and turkeys? Do you contemplate the inherent superiority of triangles over other geometric solids? It really is the perfect shape, you know − especially the equilateral! − and I don’t just say that to butter you up. Well, there is the small matter of those late fees, that copy of Oscar Wilde’s plays that I lost for, say, a couple of years. I might have to take out a line of credit or auction one of my organs on the black market to cover them, but it’s no big deal, I’m not looking for amnesty or anything. I respect you too much to give you a sob story about the kids I might have to feed one day, if I end up having any. To tell you the truth, I can’t even think about bringing any dependants into this world, what with all the money I owe your tough but fair librarians.

Hey, did I ever tell you about the time I got locked in you? I was studying away intently in one of your upper apexes, pausing only occasionally to admire the city laid out beneath you. Suddenly, they killed the lights. In my academic fervour I must have missed the announcements that you were closing. I cautiously tiptoed out, for I was young and foolish, and I had heard you were haunted. But the elevators were locked! I thought I’d be trapped in your stacks forever, like one of your many obscure dissertations. Much like, say, The Effects of Death Metal on Water Lilies and Why Chaucer was a Robot, I’d never be seen again. Thankfully, security eventually rescued me, but I’m not sure those dissertations were so lucky.

Well, old boy, Reading Week just finished, and I say it’s high time we properly honoured you. For staying open all night, for helping us cobble together last-minute papers, for just always being there. What would you like − should we erect a statue for you? Create a stat holiday for you? Or maybe we could just write a book about you? Only if you promise to keep it safe.


Reader Comments

# 1
Posted by Julian S on February 24th, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

This is great, I’ve had my share of adventures in the old bird as well. Are any of the stories about Robarts true, though? I’ve heard there is a secret network of tunnels underneath that extend to surrounding buildings. And that the namesake killed himself because people kept calling it a turkey. And that…

# 2
Posted by Louise on February 25th, 2010 @ 2:46 am

My friends and I argue about this all the time! Now I feel bad for the turkey.

# 3
Posted by Brian James White BA%201978,%20MBA%201987 on March 1st, 2010 @ 9:14 am

What a hilarious article by Joe Howell — so comically and creatively written.

@Ebenezer: Admittedly my experience with The John was in 1973-78, a more benign era for university libraries and librarians than the one we live in now, so maybe I have lost touch with how bad things have gotten in Fort Book. I found your detailed comments very interesting to read, but I do have to sentence you to a year in the Saltykov-Shchedrin in St. Petersburg or the Lenin Library in Moscow, and then I guarantee you won’t be quite so hard on the old girl — in fact, the John will seem like Library Club Med after that. Any others who have had to (try) to work in those libraries, please back me up on this one!

# 4
Posted by Declan 2nd%20year on March 2nd, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

This is a great article. You’ve summed up so much of the chatter and fun poked at this place in a clever and intriguing way. Cheers to an awesome article!

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