The Chapel of Reason

Firestone Library (the main library at Princeton designed to be a “laboratory for the humanities and social sciences”) is supposed to be renovated over the next ten years. There have been plans floating around for years, but the money and will seem to be behind it this time. As part of the process, the architects are conducting focus groups with various constituencies. Yesterday the head of the company gave a brief report on some of the student focus groups. According to her, the student groups were very interested in having Firestone be a quiet place for study and reflection. She was surprised at this, considering the usual trend around the country to make things more noisy and communal in a lot of libraries. I wasn’t surprised at all, because I see the students working here every day and I know how they use the library. In the main reference room, a student once shushed me while I was conducting a reference interview, and I don’t speak very loudly.

The rest of the world, including our lovely campus, is getting noisier and more distracting. Between the cell phones and the televisions and the constant music blaring from just about every public space, especially coffeehouses, it’s difficult to find a place to study and reflect, to live the vita contempliva that the students are here to live, if only for a brief time. It’s no wonder so many people retreat into their iPods to escape the cacophony. The library has always been a haven from the restless energy of the rest of the world, a place to avoid the temptations of friends, to escape the crowded dorm or common room, to sit quietly reading, thinking, and writing. This doesn’t mean not having common areas or computer banks or whatever, but it does mean having a lot of space that is quiet and conducive to contemplation, ideally with wireless access. I’ve written before about the library as place, and how it shouldn’t try to compete with the entertainment centers on campus. Students need quiet places for study, places close to computers and books, but not noisy and distracting. The natural place for that is the library.

In his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig calls the university the “Church of Reason.” If extend that metaphor, the library might be considered the Chapel of Reason. The Church of Reason booms while the Rites of Reason are celebrated, but the chapel can be quieter. Catholic churches sometimes have smaller chapels attached to them for specific purposes, sometimes for contemplative activities such as adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The Chapel of Reason is such a place. The rest of the Church of Reason has the communal activities, celebrating the common rights, worshiping together the goddess Reason. But there needs to be a Chapel of Reason as well, a still place to turn away from the hectic outer world and try to develop and understand the equally vibrant inner world of the mind, to commune solemnly and alone with the “sacred” texts, to find our company in the works of others and not in their person, and to do the long hard work of thinking, reading, and reflecting necessary to turn anyone into a scholar.