Inscribed in the stone above the Lawrence A. Wien Reference Room, known to most students as Butler 301—or the site of desperate all-nighters—is a Francis Bacon quote: "A Man Is But What He Knoweth." I can tell you it is not the most heartening thing to see as you struggle to understand the Catalogue of Ships the day before your first Literature Humanities class.
Perhaps I had not yet acquired the classical vocabulary to describe the feeling of doom that lodged itself in my stomach as I scanned those words. But now, I could liken my feeling to what Dante must have endured as he looked up at the gates of Hell and attempted to fathom just why he should Abandon All Hope. (Though admittedly, the crisis I felt may have been comparatively smaller to entering the infernal depths.) "You silly undergraduate," the stones seemed to scream, "trying to understand Homer! You are but what you knoweth, and you knoweth little." I realized on that day something that would haunt me for the rest of my time at Columbia: The knowledge I could intake was unbounded, but my ability to intake it was fundamentally limited.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that I came to the realization of this problem regarding the organization of knowledge in Butler Library. As with my own studies at Columbia, the two contradictory values of knowledge's mastery and its unbounded collection are at the crux of the modern university library system. Faced with the task of organizing Columbia's extensive holdings, the architects, librarians, and students of this university over the last century have battled with the impossibility of organizing the near-infinite volume of accumulated knowledge within Butler's walls. How, they wondered—and still do to this day—do we create an ordered space that can at once curate and organize knowledge while accommodating the millions of books in Columbia's collections?
The struggle to balance these aims manifests itself in Butler's own architectural structure. The glance at "A Man Is But What He Knoweth" is part of that architecture—a patterned occurrence that spoke to these irreconcilable aims. They are figurative entries in Butler's blueprint, no less essential to my perception of the building than the alternating black and white tiles lining the floors or the two staircases that wind upwards from the lobby. And that blueprint has affected reality: The Glance cements itself as a fixture of the Butler Experience™, like justifying your coffee cup to the library security guard—"I'm headed to a library yellow zone, I swear!"—or cringing when you drop a book on the ground and receive hostile stares from anyone within a 50 foot radius.
It became some sort of sadistic choral refrain. Forgot a Java idiom? "A Man Is But What He Knoweth." Can't remember the word for "shirt" in Hebrew? "A Man Is But What He Knoweth." Procrastinating studying for the Frontiers of Science midterm by reading an article on the gender pay gap? "A Man Is But What He Knoweth."
The association between The Glance and Butler became overpowering. When I sat down with Butler's archives to discover what fiend chose to project these words on the Reference Room's wall and prompt my eternal torment, I half expected to find myself logged in the records as if I were one tile and "A Man Is But What He Knoweth" the corresponding one. Both of us together, we form some sort of mildly depressing ornamentation for Butler's steel frame.
Unsurprisingly, no prophetic architect logged me into their blueprints. But symbolically, the same problem I confront daily in Butler—my mortal limits in the consumption and ordering of knowledge—manifests itself in its history. If A Man Is But What He Knoweth, A Building Is But What It Holdeth, and with an in-house collection just shy of 3 million titles, Butler holds a great deal of content. But how can any one institution organize it all? In the same building where I struggled to understand the Catalogue of Ships, hundreds had struggled to create a Catalogue of Cards.
This predicament was originally caused by the contradictory aims at the heart of the University library system. On the one hand, Janet Parks, curator of drawings and archives at Avery Library, notes that one of the principal enablers of Columbia's transition from a college to a university was the massive expansion in the library's collections that started when Columbia moved uptown and continues to this day.
On the other, though, the organization and sorting of this acquired content is obviously equally essential to the success of a library, but the task becomes more difficult as collections expand. In the program for the unveiling of the newly constructed Butler Library (then called South Hall) in 1934, which was to replace Low Library, then-University President Nicholas Murray Butler dated the birth of the University library system to the first organizational system for the books within it a little over 50 years prior. Murray refers specifically to the promotion of Melvil Dewey, a librarian and inventor of the Dewey Decimal Classification system, who ascended to the chief librarian position at Columbia in 1883.
Butler's own construction originated out of the need to create a space that could address both these contradictory concerns, and its architect, James Gamble Rogers, contended with the difficulty of balancing them. Before Butler's time, Low Library—which, unsurprisingly, was once a library—served as the main space for Columbia's collections. However, unlike the rest of the original buildings on Columbia's campus, which were designed by the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White to grow and modify as the University expanded, Low was an inflexible space—designed more as a symbol of Columbia than a building that could accommodate a growing book collection.
Because of this inflexibility, Rogers developed plans to expand Low backward by merging with University Hall, a building that stood where Uris Hall now does, to form one large library space. But this strategy was scratched since it involved excavating underground to create space, which would have been economically inefficient.
Even once he refocused his attention away from Low and resigned to create a new building—what would ultimately become Butler—Rogers was unable to meet the demands that the director of Columbia libraries at the time, Charles Williamson, asked of him. Williamson wanted to create a building with the potential to hold—or at least the potential to expand to hold—5 million books. For a variety of financial and practical reasons, Rogers was only able to design a building that could hold 2.9 million. In this respect, South Hall—Rogers' nominal solution—failed to address many of the problems it had been designed to confront in the first place. Rogers wanted to design a pragmatic center for University life (with classrooms, study venues, and space to socialize) but had to sacrifice space in order to make room for all the books while remaining within budget.
To allow for the development of both, even within the existing constraints, Rogers still technically overstepped his allotment. He expanded into South Field, destroying athletic fields to the disappointment of students.Rogers' expanded design even overstepped the space delineated by the original plans for the Morningside Heights campus, as Columbia professor of art history Barry Bergdoll notes in his book Mastering McKim's Plan, for which Parks curated images.
In terms of Butler's own design, Rogers—with partial but not entire success—managed to balance the priority for usability and the challenges posed by a large collection of books, although often at the cost of transparency. As Humanities Research Services Librarian Ian Beilin notes, Butler's previous private stacks system prioritized efficiency over public access—which was denied at the time—to the extreme, with the speed of book retrieval taking precedence over transparency.
The system switched to open stacks in the 1970s, but the stacks remain dominated by the aesthetics of functionality: designed in a wraparound system to store as many books as possible. They continue to send an elusive message, as if knowledge were meant to be hidden in the dark of motion-sensitive lights. (You can imagine the light switches whispering to each other in harried voices: "Guys! Someone's actually here! Turn on, quick!")
This problem did not go unnoticed: Beilin notes that the library went through renovations in the 1990s and 2000s that were aimed at increasing accessibility to the books. The architects added supplementary doors to the stacks and moved many of the books that they previously housed into undergraduate reading rooms. Despite this, Beilin believes the space is more closed off than average.
"You walk into the library and you don't see any books. It's just these marble halls. And then you walk further into the library, and you still won't see any books," Beilin says.
It's true—along the average trajectory from door up the stairs, I don't see books until I settle down in a reading room or enter the stacks, which is not the most inviting space. And even once you enter the stacks, Beilin observes, "You're in this weird dark space with these stacks of books. Butler is not unique [in that] respect, but when I think about the other libraries I've used, the other academic libraries, they're not quite as closed in as that."
Despite Butler's shortcomings, it remains a space where students and academics can move through this imperfection to a greater grasp of knowledge. Parks notes that the library allows for remarkably efficient and interesting research in ways people do not even fully understand. She understands the intimidation of many students on entering this space, and more broadly, in capitalizing on the enormous resources of a library.
"It's how do you learn to swim?" Parks tells me, analogizing the process to learning how to use the library's resources. "They used to throw you in the water, and it was sink or swim. And I think that made people afraid of the water, so to speak."
As the library grows, Parks believes it is important for librarians to provide instruction to students on how to use these resources. She relates to me what she says when people ask her what the role of a librarian is in navigating these large systems: "Well, you know, if we had four books, you would know what we had, but you wouldn't get very far with four books." Her point is that the role of the librarian is to help students navigate a collection much larger than four, to somehow make sense of and wield the vastness of Columbia's resources.
Unlike this organization of knowledge, which may be difficult but ultimately valiant, there are some uglier features of Butler with which I have much more difficulty coming to terms. Namely, the prioritization of masculine knowledge in this space clearly not originally intended for me, as a woman. I try regularly overlook this fault: I tell myself to find Butler's architecture inspiring no matter how exclusionary. To some extent, that is true; in its imposing rooms, it is hard not to feel important, academic.
But just like in my general studies at Columbia, I always come to the inevitable realization that I am not represented in this space even if I find a place for my thoughts in it. Looking at Butler is not unlike scanning the Lit Hum syllabus and realizing that, though I have enjoyed reading all the books, the overrepresentation of male voices still disquiets me. I may like Butler on the whole, but that element of discomfort is always lying latent if I care to do the prodding.
My unease is not unique; I have numerous friends who refuse to study in Butler as they think it projects a feeling of exclusion and wealth: It is too stuffy, too formal, too serious. And as Beilin points out to me when we talk, some people—like me, as I ponder the man who knoweth in the Ref Room—find Butler to be an unwelcoming space specifically because, as he notes, "the architecture itself and the structure itself sends that message," that message being an exclusionary one. Beilin compares his own experience stepping into the library, after years as a student and librarian of working and studying in buildings similarly grand, to the reactions others whom he knows find the space intimidating. "They associate these things with wealth and power and exclusivity and elitism," he comments.
These concerns are legitimate and cannot necessarily be solved—they are literally etched in stone. But in the end, for all its faults, I have decided that Butler, in its valiant attempt to organize knowledge, inspires rather than discourages me. As always, I swipe into Butler with my coffee cup hidden under my arm and gaze at the mural painted by Eugene Savage behind the security desk. It depicts Athena, prevailing over the ranks of chaos, a symbol of peace and order to which the men in the corners struggle to reach, led in their quest by angelic figures representing the various academic disciplines. As I gaze at the scene, at the humans wrestling to loose themselves from the vines and chaos of the bottom of the painting, I do a manual edit job of Bacon's aphorism: "A Man Is—But He Knoweth."
So perhaps my consumption of knowledge will always be asymptotic: I will never be Athena, never a god, always approaching knowledge through biased sources and imperfect systems. I am and will always be subject to human error, bias, and weakness. But, despite these constrictions, I will continue to work and understand and learn. Yes, I am: But no matter to that. I will still knoweth.