I spent a couple days this week at the Spiffy-ton library–not researching in los archivos like before. Just writing. My colegas recommend that I write there because in the “reading room” you are not alone. You are not alone. There are many others hunched over in the darkness, typing away. The only light, it seems, comes from the brass desk lamps–one at each desk–that shine on books and documents propped up under them. The lamps and the eery blue-ish glow of laptop screens reflecting on pale faces adorned with spectacles. I am often the youngest one there–or at least one of the only ones without a head of white hair. The room has that old library feel like those old ivy schools back east. All four walls are two stories high, covered floor-to-ceiling with books. There are no windows and no skylights. It feels like a dungeon to me.
At 11:45 most folks begin to trickle out for lunch, meeting up with other scholars who frequent the Spiffy, most of whom have come to town for an intense visit to look at all that old dusty stuff they keep in the basement vaults somewhere beneath where we sit. A couple of times, I have had pleasant conversations with well-established visiting scholars, who, like me, have no one else to eat lunch with. We talk about the beautiful botanical gardens, our research, our home institutions.
It is a nice place to get lots of work done, but I can’t seem to get on board with the gushing excitement everyone else seems to feel about working there. It may be real pretty, but it is, after all, a private and very exclusive library that requires an extensive process to prove one’s scholarly business in order to enter the building. Nothing demonstrates exclusion like 10-foot-high iron fencing stretching a few miles around the perimeter. And as a young-looking brown woman, I have been chased down the hallway while entering with a group of white scholars because the receptionist didn’t get a good look at my research badge. Once I was turned away at the gate when the grounds were closed to the public (even though the library was open) because I didn’t look like a scholar to the guard (even though I showed him my research badge, he said it was closed that day–and when I inquired the following day at the library, it turned out that the library actually had been open). I heard once that they leave a little gate open on the side of the grounds for 30 min every morning so that the Latina/o staff–gardening and custodial workers–don’t have to walk the extra mile around to the main gate. These workers have been the most friendly to me. I may be a good historian. Heck, I may even be great one day. But I don’t think I will ever feel comfortable at the Spiffy. Not that the university setting is much better, but somehow it’s different.
You may not be alone while writing at the Spiffy, but writing is a lonely process regardless. My mom, who just finished her Ph.D. last fall, keeps telling me that I need to embrace my solitude. “I know you are a social person, but you don’t really need a social life right now. You just need to write,” she’d said on the phone last week. A few days later, a mentor-friend told me that writing a dissertation is not a human(izing) process, thereby confirming my barely-suppressed feelings of anxiety about isolation and lack of community. A lot of academics tend toward the hermit-ish, but I have never been one of them. And so, I am trying to embrace my solitude. And I am deciding whether or not to move back to small-midwestern-college-town for what better be my final year of dissertation-writing. And in the meantime I will keep going to the Spiffy. And hopefully some days my brown colegas will be there. And I will keep going to my favorite coffee shops (despite the hipsters). And I will keep writing.