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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Blue Notes, April 2018

Updated: Sep 3, 2021

A wooden desk fades in from black, and a gloved hand delicately places a red rose in frame, forming an ominous triangle alongside a magnifying glass and burned out candle. The camera drifts to a leather bound book, where the words “A SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERY” glint golden on the cover. The hand turns the pages with all the self seriousness of the ghoulish Victorian mystery from which the video takes inspiration, finally revealing it’s title: “Murder in the Stacks.”

Not to be confused with David Dekok’s true-crime novel on the 1969 murder of Penn State student, Betsy Aardsma, this gruesomely titled video filmed in Butler Library deals with matters a little more mundane. Produced in 1987 by the Columbia University Libraries Preservation and Digital Conversion Division, the victims of these “murders” aren’t people, but tomes lining Butler’s walls, poorly cared for by staff and students.

Illustration by Julia Flasphaler

Crafted in association with the Division of Library Development at the New York State Library, the video hopes to educate its viewers on the necessary, but oft disregarded, practices of book preservation. Donning his iconic deerstalker hat and an atrocious posh affect, Sherlock Holmes himself leads viewers and the bumbling Dr. Watson through Columbia’s most iconic library in this pursuit. Investigating the crimes against the books around him, Holmes lectures on the proper handling, placement, and removal of books on the shelf with all the passive-aggression that one might expect in such a tutorial. He zig-zags around the library pointedly criticizing its occupants for misplacing books, leaving bookmarks in returned books, and eating (“Watson, eating in the stacks brings bugs and roaches just as surely as ants follow a picnic!”) .

After 14 minutes of what could only most generously be deemed investigation, the oddly book-fixated Holmes concludes his lecture, staring straight into the camera and declaring, “If we are to keep books alive, preservation is the 100 percent solution”. He gives a final suck on his empty pipe (presumably bad library etiquette), and disappears into the over-conditioned Butler air. The credits roll as Watson chuckles and follows suit, evaporating and joining his principle as well meaning, if poorly acted, pieces of Columbia library history.

— Isaiah Bennett

What experience is more definitively Columbian than a group of students sitting in a circle, passionately arguing about a topic for which they have no more than a basic understanding? The Roosevelt Institute is a national organization, with a chapter at Columbia, that shapes this scenario into a fresh take on policy debate. At the beginning of each debate, which all turn out to be more think-tank in style than a rigidly structured discourse, each attendee is handed a simple fact sheet regarding the topic. Every person has the same baseline knowledge, and can then contribute to any conversation the club might decide to enter.

It is not uninformed rambling that dominates club meetings, but rather a collection of fresh perspectives that rise from a shared set of facts. Special individual experiences can sometimes inform the group’s final policy proposals. When I spoke to the club’s Outreach Director Ben Kaplan, SEAS ’20, he told me “While very few at the meeting actually knew much of specific affordable housing policy both in NYC and elsewhere, one student who had stayed at an AirBnB in Germany (a country with a great number of restrictions on the service) was able to share that experience as an effect of the Germans’ policy.” The club’s openness to new perspectives is its main tenet, but they also aim to produce coherent and high-quality policy proposals. Their novel approach and fun structure are supported and driven by purposeful and actionable policy proposals, which can be collected and presented in different forms including the club’s annual Roosevelt Review Journal and long-form Policy Center Initiatives.

Illustration by Sahra Denner

One of the most interesting challenges that the club’s leaders face is constructing topics that facilitate discussion—the club has to create something debatable every single week. Kaplan told me, “To make sure our meetings continue to push people, our board must work to find topics which may spark controversy and discussion between even a group of students with a dominant liberal majority.” The Roosevelt Institute at Columbia conducts policy debates in Lerner every Tuesday night at 9 PM, with topics and details on their Facebook and Twitter. They encourage new prospective members to come seize their constructed controversy and argue their hearts out.

— Ryan Mohen

The Columbia student’s perennial problem of finding suitable study space on this crowded campus iss, it appears, something less of a problem if you know where to look. . Buried in the depths of Kent Hall’s East Asian Library, the underground stacks are an extensive, well-lit study hall with comfortable tables and a warm, benevolent atmosphere. Cases and cases of books in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Tibetan surround wooden tables, private cubicles, and even a row of desks with computers, and although the space is underground, the lighting is soft and comfortable: bright enough to work, but not glaringly fluorescent. Both the daring explorer and the desperate, I’ll-settle-for-anything-at-this-point forager will agree that the base of Kent’s library stacks is a remarkable discovery — for those who are able to find it, that is.

Illustration by Julia Flasphaler

The journey to these hidden stacks, however, is less glamorous than the destination. Go through the nondescript door on the right-most side of the East Asian Library’s main floor to get to the upper level of stacks. Then, perhaps with a flashlight in case the power goes out, make your way past a few shelves until you reach the rickety, industrial set of stairs that run through the stacks. There among the automatic dehumidifiers, abandoned notes, and various unidentifiable stains, you may feel pressured to turn and run, but press on dear scholar, press on. After a few more flights, the light of the study hall will illuminate your face, erasing the trauma of the earlier stacks and consolingly welcoming you into its bounds. For an added challenge, try to find the extensive collection of Tibetan Buddhist canons. This is studying at Columbia like you’ve never seen it before.

— Sarah Wallstrom


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