Johns Hopkins Magazine
Johns Hopkins Magazine Current Issue Past Issues Search Get In Touch
Boxed Volumes

Our resident bibliophile ponders the question: When the books are gone from Gilman Hall, what's left?

By Dale Keiger
Photo by Will Kirk

Gilman Hall was built for books. It was built around books. The building's core was a system of central stacks that for decades comprised the university's humanities library. As the first academic building on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, Gilman was designed to sustain scholarship. It had everything a man of letters — they were all men in the early days — needed for his work: offices, classrooms, seminar rooms, and books. Eventually it had a bookstore in its basement, books in all its offices, books in its heart. When it had to be vacated last month for two years of renovation, Gilman Hall was without books for the first time in 93 years. The building that housed Lovejoy and Boaz, Albright and Singleton, Barth and Pocock, had not one text within its walls, save for the contractor's blueprints in Room 38.

The exodus of the printed word, though temporary, seemed to focus an attendant anxiety. In this building, humanities scholarship and pedagogy had been conducted in the Johns Hopkins manner for nearly a century. The study of humanities was the study of books (though eventually "texts" became the operative term) and the discussion of them around seminar tables, in book-stuffed offices, among faculty from various departments, and with visiting scholars who delivered papers, then girded themselves for vigorous challenges from an audience of Hopkins faculty and students who gave no quarter. As current faculty slid their books into one box after another, some expressed a measure of concern. The books would return. But would something else essential to Johns Hopkins depart Gilman Hall and not make it back?

I came to Johns Hopkins near the end of 1992. During the next 15 years, I watched one building after another go up and fill up: the Mattin Center, Clark Hall, the Ralph S. O'Connor Recreation Center, Hodson Hall, the succinctly named Chemistry Building, the Maxine F. Singer/Carnegie Institution Building, Charles Commons, the Computational Science and Engineering Building, Mason Hall. This was the first time I'd ever watched a campus building empty out. In May, I strolled Gilman's corridors, dodging transparent sacks bulging with discarded papers and academic journals, checking the spines of books left for adoption in stacks on the floor or on tables, peeking into open offices at shelves gradually growing empty — or not, in the cases of professors who hadn't yet made much of a start. Already there were closed-off stairwells and signs warning that the basement, what was left of it as workers dug out a new one, was now a hard-hat area.

I paid visits to various faculty members, mostly men and women whom I have known for 10 years or more. They were in the process of stuffing their scholarly lives into cartons. They packed books, files, offprints, journals, dissertations, lecture notes, maps, prints, slides, photographs, lamps, hat racks (one), statuettes (one, of Edgar Allan Poe), swords (two, if you count a foil), and ashtrays (secret — no one's supposed to smoke in Hopkins buildings). They faced decisions: what to send to Dell House, the Hopkins apartment building south of campus where they would have temporary offices; what to take home; what to give away.

Boxing all those years of work had faculty variously contemplative, unsettled, bemused, resigned, reflective, optimistic, wary, and curious, which stands to reason. If you are bookish, your mind's life maps to your bookshelves. The organizational schema of your personal stacks reflects how you order your thinking. Accumulated volumes reveal the paths taken by your work. In Gilman 219, doctoral student Fabio Bonetti helped pack the books of P. M. Forni, professor of civility. That's not Forni's actual title — he's a professor of Italian literature — but for many years now he has pursued the study of courtesy and public manners. In the course of that work, he assembled a civility library that he believes to be unique in the United States. By the time we chatted in his office, it was already gone, donated to the Eisenhower Library. Atop one set of shelves were cartons labeled, in black marker, "Archivio Boccaccio" — evidence of Forni's specialty before he began devoting himself to civility. Packing his books had put him in a pensive mood. "It's a rediscovery of your life," he said. "You find humble but significant signposts that mark the journey of your intellectual life. It's sort of an archaeology of the heart and of the mind." He found notes for projects started then abandoned, and marginalia that indicated what he was thinking at the time he last read various volumes. "What you discover are things you have done, thoughts you have entertained and forgotten, and also things you were considering doing and never brought to fruition. You are reminded of the many roads not taken."

Sifting through his papers in Gilman 237, Stephen Nichols, chairman of the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures, came across an exam book from when he was a graduate student studying with the late renowned French scholar Daniel Poirion at Yale. He leafed through it and checked the front page. "I did well," he said. "Graded in the 90s." History professor Louis Galambos, Gilman 235, came across lots to remember, but lots to discard. He said, "You find these things and can't imagine why you have them, why you kept them. It was therapeutic in that regard. Cleansing, you might say." Wilda Anderson, Gilman 328, a professor of French literature, took note of what she still had, but also what was missing. She found herself wondering, "When did I lend that to a grad student? Oh yeah, eight years ago, and now he's in Canada."

Books changed hands. Graduate students were the beneficiaries in some cases, and faculty gave books to a Baltimore nonprofit exchange called The Book Thing. But book people grudgingly give up the libraries they've spent decades assembling. As English professor Frances Ferguson, Gilman 138, put it, "Having books is like having two or three additional members of a family." You're not always sure what to do with them, they can be a burden, but you part from them unwillingly. For some people, that meant construction projects. Italian literature professor Walter Stephens, Gilman 221, installed a hundred feet of new shelving to accommodate what was coming home with him from Gilman. Galambos, possessor of "a big ole house," installed his library on its third floor, where he plans to leave it even past Gilman's reopening. Nichols didn't know what he was going to do with much of his library. "That's a major problem. I have no more room at home. I guess I'll have to put a lot of them on shelves in my barn in Vermont." Stephens, the man who had the pair of swords in his office — one a stage prop, neither showing recent use — said, "I dream of being Montaigne, up in a tower surrounded by my books."

Why Sara Castro-Klaren had to part with much of her library is a poignant story. A professor of Latin American literature, she was teaching at the University of California, Irvine. Though she was merely on leave from Hopkins, she left Baltimore assuming she would be relocating to California. At Hopkins, as part of her work, she had assembled two significant collections of Spanish American and Brazilian books. She had no room for them in her new Cal-Irvine office and no room for them in the small house she and her husband rented in California. But she had to get them out of Gilman, so she gave most of them away. Some went to the library at George Washington University. She gave many of the Brazilian books to a very grateful grad student. "Finally," she said, "I just had to put books in the Gilman hallway." After she'd done all of this, she and her husband realized they could never afford to buy a house in California. So now she is returning to resume her post at Hopkins. The 2,000 books she considers her working library were always safe at her Baltimore home, but she hated giving away the others, to facilitate a cross-country move that, in the end, she will not be making. "Every last book was a book that I'd read," she said, which gave them all meaning. "It's so hard to part with them. I think it would be easier for me to part with jewelry than to part with books."

There's a painting I like, by an obscure Czech artist named Johann Michael Bretschneider, who worked in the early 18th century. I have seen it labeled Philosophers in the Study and Scholars in a Study, and it portrays three bearded figures hard at work. Books are on shelves overhead, books are on the floor, books and manuscripts rest open or drape like fabric from desktops and tilted reading stands. The ceiling is high enough to be out of the picture, at least 20 feet, and sunlight streams through a tall vertical window. Art adorns the wall above the stuffed bookcase.

I know of a startlingly similar photo of the Hopkins faculty office of John Holladay Latané, who joined the history department in 1913 and taught there until his death in 1932. Light streams in from the left, as in the painting. The ceiling is high. Framed artwork hangs above nine bookcases brimming with thousands of books, and more books and papers have been piled on Latané's desk. The photo apparently dates from a year or two before Gilman Hall opened in 1915, so it must not have been taken there, but it's easy to imagine similar photographs coming out of Gilman in 1920 or '30 or '50.

Moving their books was inconvenient. But what seemed more on the minds of some professors was something deeper. Most of the people I spoke with were, like me, in their 50s, or older; several had been at Hopkins for 20 or 30 years. Gilman Hall, as it had been designed and as it was throughout their careers here, was a place where scholars worked a certain way: in collaboration with students and each other, surrounded by books and professional journals, in rooms with high ceilings and natural light, every office different, every seminar room different, every space inhabited by the spirit of scholars past and present. As a Hopkins humanities professor, you read there, you wrote there, you taught there, and you had fruitful discussions there. Gilman embodied the humanities at Johns Hopkins as studied and taught in a time-honored way, before digital technology and intense academic specialization and online electronic libraries. In sorting their books, some faculty realized that they don't necessarily have to work surrounded by the traditional forms of text, like Latané or the scholars in Bretschneider's painting. They don't need a library in the core of Gilman. They don't need thousands of books within reach. Gabrielle Spiegel, Gilman 340, professor of history, tossed all her old copies of the American Historical Review, journals that had accumulated throughout her career. They had been not just a resource but a tangible timeline of her professional life. She was melancholy about throwing them out, but she didn't need them anymore; now if she has to find an article in a past issue, she can do so online. "It's like the end of an era, the end of paper," she said. "Everything is available digitally on JSTOR [a digital archive of scholarly journals]. But it's not the same, if you're my age."

Professors worry that the Hopkins tradition of scholarly interaction, and of weekly departmental seminars, will suffer during the two years away from Gilman. "A lot of us count on running into each other in the halls," Nichols said. "It's the way we function. The seminar system depends on that. Many are worried about the culture of the humanities fostered by the proximity of so many disciplines in Gilman Hall." Galambos wondered the same thing. "Academic life, because of specialization, has fractured anyway," he said. As do other departments, the Department of History has a long, revered tradition of faculty and visiting scholars delivering papers at weekly seminars. Dell House is more than a half-mile from Gilman; how many people, Galambos wondered, will traipse down there, especially in winter, to attend seminars? And when the faculty return to Gilman, will something else be absent, besides the hideously clanking radiators, which nobody will miss? "I'm so concerned they'll take the charm out and just turn it into a Marriott," said Anderson. Will the new Gilman retain the old Gilman's soul?

No one knows. But when the books come back, and the scholars and the students return, it's hard to imagine that so much will have been lost. Some of the faculty look ahead and regard the next two years as potentially interesting. Anderson put aside her doubts for a moment and said of Dell House, "I'm going to see colleagues I haven't seen in years. There will be a sort of camping-out mentality." Amanda Anderson, a professor of English (and no relation to Wilda), said, "I have a slightly more positive view of disruption. And I think the new building is going to be really wonderful, and coming back will be really energizing. I tend to be an optimist. I can't help it." Ferguson observed, "People hate having to move their stuff around. But I can't imagine it's going to hurt anyone's soul to have good heating and cooling."

When they examined Gilman Hall prior to starting the renovation, engineers found a surprise. The building's top story was supported by the infrastructure of the central stacks. Though not strictly accurate, it's satisfying to think of the entire fourth floor of Gilman Hall as resting on books. In June 2010, the humanities will return to Gilman. Thousands of volumes will come out of cartons and go back on shelves and desktops and, before long, floors and windowsills and chairs and filing cabinets. Not everything will be the same, and no doubt something will be lost. But it's hard to believe the soul of the place will not have survived. When the books come back, so, I suspect, will the rest.

Dale Keiger is associate editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine.

Return to June 2008 Table of Contents

  The Johns Hopkins Magazine | 901 S. Bond St. | Suite 540 | Baltimore, MD 21231
Phone 443-287-9900 | Fax 443-287-9898 | E-mail