Libraries infuse magic into studying abroad

29 Sep

When we go abroad to study, of course we do so for academic reasons. But however serious you are about studies, the rest of life does not grind to a halt. Life can enrich your studies, and your studies can enrich life. And my experience has been that libraries enrich both.

I went to graduate school at the Pennsylvania State University, which has 36 libraries at 22 locations across the state, with a total of nearly 5.5 million books, recordings, and other materials. Fourteen of the 36 libraries were on my campus. During the semester, most of these were open at least 12 hours a day, and there was no limit on the number of items you could check out (there were times when I checked out more than 200).

So you’d think that one could never want for books on a campus like that. But greed is part of human nature. Not so good when it’s about food or money, usually, but is there such a thing as being too greedy for books and music? I don’t think so. So, despite this massive wealth of material within walking distance of my house, I still turned to other libraries for work and fun.

First, let me explain the fun part. I love books and music! I love movies a little bit less, but I do love them, too. So even when I was snowed under with class work, research, and teaching, I managed some time for these things. One of the types of music I love is western classical. Of course, quite a lot was available back in India, but now, with these libraries, I suddenly felt as if I had gone from a wading pool out into the open sea. I got very greedy very quickly.

As an example, here’s one of my favorite works – Sarasate’s Ziegeunerweisen (also known as Gypsy Airs), a virtuoso violin piece.

I idly wondered how different violinists would interpret it in their own way. I logged on to my library’s website and found that one or two recordings were available locally. Then I found the link for interlibrary loan, and put in a request for every single recording I could find on the WorldCat. As a registered student of the university, I had to pay no additional charge for interlibrary loan requests.

The interlibrary lending system allowed the staff at my library to request other libraries for the items I wanted. Within a couple of weeks, I got a series of emails saying the items I had ordered had arrived. I just had to walk over from my department next door and pick them up. And that is how I listened to probably every great recording of Ziegeunerweisen ever made. Most were on CD, including a crackly old recording from the mono era. One request arrived in the form of an old vinyl record. I didn’t have a turntable, so I took the record to the music library and listened to it there.

Another time I used interlibrary loan for sheer fun was when I suddenly remembered that one of the inspirations behind Bill Watterson’s phenomenally successful Calvin And Hobbes comics was the work of late cartoonist George Herriman’s vintage Krazy Kat series. I found a few of the comics in my library, but of course that wasn’t enough. I got more from other libraries. And while I was at it, I ordered some Asterix comics in the original French, as a fun way to practice French. This took care of a good deal of summer down time, because what’s better than sitting under a tree and reading comics?

It wasn’t long before I turned into some kind of monster on the rampage. I was unstoppable: feature films, documentaries, vintage crime novels, music – I ordered anything that I was curious about, and which I could not find in local libraries, and could not possibly find in a local or online store.

Having the freedom to explore without restraint meant, of course, that I discovered innumerable things that were useful for work. I found a vintage black-and-white German film called Inextinguishable Fire, about the creation of napalm (a horrifying chemical weapon that sticks to the skin and causes severe burns), which made one stop and think about how science can be used for evil. I was able to order a copy of One Day in September, a film that investigated the terrorist attack during the 1972 Munich Olympics to reveal some shocking truths. I ordered Quilombo, an old Brazilian film about a 17th-century republic established by runaway slaves. I discovered a lot of pop music – hybridized forms from different parts of the world that were the result of histories of colonization, slavery and indentured labor. I ended up using many such finds in the world history classes that I taught, such as this Afro-Peruvian song called El Mayoral (the slave-driver):

For my own research, of course, I found more books than I could have dreamed of. They spanned three centuries (19th to 21st), and included an amazing bound collection of agreements between the British empire and princely states in the Saurashtra region. These books and documents came from as far as the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago (nearly 600 miles) and Juneau, Alaska (more than 3,500 miles).

It became something of a challenge to make a wish that interlibrary loan could not fulfill. I am happy to report that I lost the challenge, and interlibrary loan won.


By: Uma Asher

No comments yet

Leave a Reply