R.I.P., Mudd Library

Mudd never claimed to be a beauty queen. Photo by yan.da.
Mudd never claimed to be a beauty queen. Photo by yan.da.

Who could love a library named Mudd? Especially when the library in question looks like a bunker, has terrible lighting, and offers no good places to sit? Well, I do (or did), and I’ll tell you why.

Yale’s Mudd Library is a high-density storage facility that houses rarely used materials and the government documents collection. Yale’s closing the library for a year while it catalogs the collection, and then it’s probably going to demolish the building, combining it with the social-science library to make a new, more user-friendly building. It’s not clear to me whether all of the volumes at Mudd will be included in this new building, or whether they’ll be moved to Yale’s off-site storage facility.

It’s undeniable that Mudd is not a great use of space. I very rarely encountered another person in its stacks. Plus, the lighting is horrible, there are very few windows, something’s always buzzing ominously, and it’s impossible to find the volume you’re looking for.

But, for me, there’s real excitement to be had at Mudd. If something is at Mudd, it is, by definition, rarely consulted, so you knew you were looking at something very few people had bothered with. The haphazard cataloging meant that you were constantly surprised by something — bound copies of the entire run of Printer’s Ink, or office-mechanization manuals from the 1950s.

An image from one of the brochures I found at Mudd.
An image from one of the brochures I found at Mudd.

In fact, I wrote a paper, which became a conference presentation, based on a discovery I made purely by chance at Mudd. I was poking around in the section devoted to chain stores when I found a cache of brochures from the 1930s defending chain stores. “Defending them from what?” I thought. I had no idea that there was a chain-store resistance movement, but, inspired by those brochures, I found that there had been, and that it had been more massive and dramatic than I could have imagined.

Those fragile brochures probably shouldn’t have been sitting in the stacks, and I certainly shouldn’t have been allowed to check them out. But I guess the demise of Mudd epitomizes, for me, some of what we’re losing and gaining as libraries evolve. Undoubtedly the collection at Mudd will be better used when it’s well-cataloged. But if it’s moved to an off-site facility, users will miss out on that very private thrill of discovering something tangible. Sure, maybe someday the collection will be imaged, and even fully digitized, but the better a volume’s indexed, the less serendipity enters into its discovery.

I don’t want to get too rhapsodic about dusty books, et cetera, et cetera. I like accessing things digitally and I get really frustrated when materials aren’t well-cataloged. Still, I can’t help but think libraries like Mudd are a healthy reminder that information can, and should, surprise us sometimes.

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