Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Going Back to My Old School in 2023

I am in the midst of my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) project. This year, instead of writing a work of fiction, I've decided to work on a nonfiction project focusing on the political ideologies - the Isms - that define the American worldview.

In order to do it, I need decent research, and the best place for nonfiction research is an academic library.

So, I took a vacation day from work to drive up to Gainesville FL and visit the University of Florida libraries - arguably atop the public university system in the state - to find what I could for references for my writing.

This was also a homecoming of sorts for me. Since this is where I went to college to study for my journalism degree from 1988 to 1992. And it was a special homecoming because the library was where I spent most of my college life.

When did they add palm trees to the Plaza of the Americas???

During my journalism classwork I worked part-time, getting employment at the library itself in their cataloging department handling the book spine labels getting printed and applied. I enjoyed working the library more than working towards that degree (it didn't help that my grades were middling, I had to take Basic Reporting twice which was not a good sign). So it shouldn't be too surprising I ended up a librarian instead of a reporter.

While I've spent most of my career as a public librarian - working at the county/city level - my dream had been to work as an academic librarian in a university system, where the research demands were more intense and challenging. And the library I wanted to work at was at UF.

And in 2003 - twenty years ago - I got my wish. I was hired on to work at Library West - the main business / humanities / political science / general academia branch - as their Evening (tech support) Librarian.

And... it didn't last. Part of it was because the building itself went into a massive expansion / renovation to improve the floor space, which sent the West staff to work in a wing of Library East where almost none of the students visited - other than to check out DVDs - and it quickly jaded my experience. Another part was that I just didn't fit in, and I ran into a personal conflict or two with fellow staffers that led the HR department to hint that I should go find work elsewhere. By the time Library West reopened, I was looking for employment back closer to my parents and friends in the Tampa area, and I left in 2006.

I'd been back up to Gainesville from time to time: Whenever brother Phil (a fellow alum) went up to see football games with his sons, I would tag along to some of them; I had visited pre-pandemic to a SwampCon and walked the campus from Reitz Union to the library and back; and had driven by on recent swing-bys when I went to Tallahassee to advocate with the Florida Library Association's lobbying every year for funds.

But this would be the first time to visit the library and campus during a school day, and it was going to be - unavoidable - a nostalgic trip back to when I was in my early 20s, and a reminder of half the regrets I carry with me.

This video was in the early Tuesday morning, which is not often the busiest class day - class cycles were Mondays-Wednesdays-maybe Fridays, or Tuesdays-Thursdays - and relatively early enough that not every student was heading to class ("Never before 11!"). This was in the Turlington Hall plaza, between the main campus buildings for Turlington (where most of the humanities/social sciences were taught) and Marston (where some sciences - especially computer tech). The Century Tower is across the street. This plaza at midday is one of the centers of student life, where odds favor you bumping into half of your friends between sessions (the Plaza of the Americas in front of the main library is next, and then Reitz Union).

You had two main methods of getting across campus back in my day: By foot or by bike. Maybe skateboarding if you were cool enough. This visit I spotted a reasonably high number of scooters, apparently the technology - and collapsible steering rods - has improved.

The library itself hadn't changed much since the 2005 renovations, although they've moved equipment rooms around, and instead of copier machines they now use scanner trays which can email PDF copies to you (no more cash or student debit cards!).

Never try to walk and use a smartphone camera while turning a corner...

The welcome desk for the staff floor. You'll still get students asking "where can I study?" while standing in front of that sign.

When they renovated, it was to install the closing - accordion-style - shelves
to expand shelving in a limited space. Even then, UF libraries has so many books
they had to split branches by subject - Arts, Music, Education, Science, Journalism - just to give the main library room for history/literature/humanities/business/social sciences.
Even with this, UF has to maintain an off-campus storage for all the other books they need to keep.

Ahh, there I am.

I had published my short story collection in 2005, and donated copies
to the library for inclusion. The natural lifespan of a book by an unknown author
in a public library could be 5-10 years. An academic library by its nature
has to hold onto books as long as possible for research needs. In 20 years, depending on the circulation, this will likely go to Off-Campus Storage... say, 2025... /sigh 

I ventured back over to Library East, which is the Special Collections building.
Used to be the Cataloging department I worked in was on the third floor. That's been taken over by the Latin American collection that used to be on fourth (it was pretty cramped up there when I left in 2006). There was an elevator for East I had to use getting work as a student labeler, but it was sooooo slow I would take that stairwell (of which I took that photo). When I was 20, I could run those stairs to third floor without a problem. At 53, old and fat, there is no fucking way
I can run those stairs again.

I wore a Nirvana shirt to signal my Gen Xness in case the graying beard and aged eyes didn't give me away.

There is a spot between Librarys West and East where a fellow could sit, either before the library opened for work, or during the day on a snack break, and it was at this spot I would rest.
If it was early enough in the morning, some of the squirrels would be brave enough to approach me and beg for the candy M&Ms I would eat. I did share, but I worry now that I gave those squirrels diabetes.

The walkway between the business classrooms that take up the original (northeast) corner of the university, going through the Plaza en route to Turlington. This was in the mid-afternoon between the final round of the day's classes. I didn't want to take pictures of it being too busy because I wanted to avoid close-ups of people who wouldn't want to get photographed by a stranger.
You might notice there's one older brick path in-between two newer paths. There were SO MANY people biking and walking this path between the major parts of campus that the grassy areas along that original path wore down into dirt. The campus HAD to expand the brick pathway to accommodate
that traffic. The benches are super-new, though (I noticed memorial nameplates on several, so it's apparently a new fund-raising gimmick for alumni).

The Plaza of the Americas is the "official" spot to hold protests and political gatherings, and they seem to have an ongoing protest by the local Jewish student groups about the kidnapped hostages in the current Hamas-Israel Gaza War. It was quiet for now, no counter-protests by the sizable Middle-Eastern / Muslim student groups that are also on-campus.
My previous experience as a student - and library staffer - was that the on-campus Jewish and Muslim groups behaved themselves (because they shared a common enemy with the frats). I dunno how they're both handling the nightmare of war in Gaza right now...

On my way back from Library West to the Visitor Garage at Reitz, back through Turlington, one last look at the infamous rock statue locally known as "The Potato" (no lie, the Pokemon Go gym spot labels itself that).
I know it looks lumpy like a potato, but c'mon people, do you notice that large bump on that one side of the rock formation? I swear that's a thumb, and the statue is really a lumpy glove. IT'S A GLOVE, PEOPLE. Why am I the only one who sees it...?

Going back to where I had been 30 - even 20 - years ago brought back a lot of quiet memories, and a lot of the regret I know I carry with me. Above all, the regret that I did myself poorly not being more social and active while a college student. I didn't do much other than be with a science fiction club that struggled to reach more students, I did nothing to find a dating life among the young women that populated half the campus, I made few friends from that time and haven't kept up much with the ones I did.

A lot of physical changes had happened to the UF Campus - and to the businesses and eateries across the street, ye Gods the Pita Pit was gone??? - but there was still a lot that reminded me of how it was when I was a young man with his whole life still ahead of him. It's just... I wish that young man enjoyed his time in that moment a lot more...

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