I was excited to visit Mt. Holyoke College on a recent trip, anticipating that an all-female student body might produce a different kind of library graffiti than I’ve seen at the University of Chicago or Berkeley. Indeed, I was not disappointed.
Their library is seven floors, though most of them are confined to a fairly small central tower. The perimeter of most floors is lined with study carrels– some in more private nooks than others– but like at Berkeley, the study carrels are assigned. Unlike at Berkeley, this does actually appear to have cut down on the amount of graffiti on the carrels.
In fact, an afternoon and two mornings of scouring the library, I only found a small handful of graffiti in the library. It’s entirely possible there’s a mother lode I missed, not knowing where to look– it’s a pretty confusing building to navigate. Defying my own latrinalia ban, I even checked the bathrooms I came across– including the one men’s room– to no avail.
Most of the graffiti I found was in the narrow stairwell connecting floors within the tower, under the stickers labeling the floors. Apparently, the 3rd floor (which houses the books on Economics; Communities and Women’s Studies; Social Pathology; Socialism, Communism and Anarchism; and Political Science1) is the floor of doom. The students have nothing to say about the 4th floor (Local Government; Colonies and Colonization; International Law/Relations; Law; Education; Music; Visual Arts; Architecture; Sculpture; Drawing, Design, Illustration; Painting) beyond clarifying that it is, in fact, the 4th floor. The world of languages and literatures on the 5th floor earns it the designation of the floor of “wonder”, along with what I assume is an in-joke on the left (“3 … 5 SIR!”). No other floor signs I found had any commentary.
Random nook graffiti
In a back corner of one of the lower, non-tower floors, I found a couple work tables, and two pieces of graffiti. We have what appears to be a headless, armless woman in a short dress with a bow on it, and a vagina. I’m guessing the former is intended to be a style of drawing suitable for fashion design sketching, rather than a statement about how revealing clothing disempowers women. And the vagina? Well, it was the only representation of genitalia I found in all the markings in the library. After seeing Chicago’s penis-to-vagina drawing ratio (9 to 0) and Berkeley’s (2 to 1) I was curious to see whether the absence of penises among the students in a women’s college carried over to the library graffiti. One drawing of a vagina out of a total of two drawings, out of a grand total of 5 found graffiti sites doesn’t make for a sample size of any significance, but I still figure it’s worth noting. Also worth noting is that this one vagina was the closest thing to a sexual reference I could find. (I’m disinclined to count the single, empty bottle of Busch on a carrel; what I perceive as significance is probably just my UofC tendency to see things as symbolic of penises combined with the Berkeley interest in bush.)
At one point in my wandering, I found my way into an elevator, where I discovered a bit more graffiti: I ♡ you, encapsulated in another heart for extra emphasis. This is followed up by “me too” along with the contrarian “I don’t”.
That’s it for the library graffiti I was able to find– and even strolling around the campus more broadly didn’t yield much more than
Boys are dumb written on a display board for posting fliers.
But wait, there’s more!
In a place like the Mt. Holyoke library, it would be a mistake to limit the discussion of “library graffiti” strictly to the actual graffiti. Even a cursory inspection of the space indicates that words written by students, for students, contribute immensely to the ambiance. At Mt. Holyoke, the words don’t take the form of anonymous graffiti, but messages posted on study carrels.
The problem of carrel thievery
There are official signs posted all over the library explaining that carrels are reserved for individuals, and students without carrels should not simply commandeer whatever happens to be open. Yet, carrel thievery appears to be an actual issue– many carrels included their own personal note addressing the topic. It’s honestly a little surprising; almost all of the carrels are decorated, and/or littered with personal effects.
What I find amazing about these notes is the phrasing– often wordy, often including a greeting, remarkably polite and often leaving open the possibility of exceptions being made. Notes almost always have a “please”. Even the most direct and brusque notes have less serious, less creepy vibe than the equivalent note I came across at UofC, where claims of possession aren’t legitimate to begin with. A couple representative samples:
- Hi! This carrel is reserved & used by Cory [redacted] who is writing a thesis & needs this space to work (and not go crazy). I’d prefer you to work somewhere else, but if I’m not here & you really need it, then welcome, weary traveler. If you leave items here, you will be ranted about/made fun of on the internet (not a threat, just how I deal with stress). (photo)
- Hi! Welcome to Jenna’s Carrel. Please note the pretty decorations declaring this as my space. If you are not Jenna or one of her friends, go away (aka find somewhere else to study). (photo)
- Hi, Even though I may not have left anything in this carrel to decorate and whatnot to show that there is someone who the carrel belongs to this year, it does not mean that the carrel is open to the public. Carrels are reserved to those who queued up for them. I don’t mind if others use this carrel when I’m not here, but please do not leave your stuff – books, newspapers, coffee cups etc in my carrel. Thanks. (photo)
Inspiration and motivation
Inspirational and motivational quotes are a common form of carrel decoration at Mt. Holyoke College. Even the most direct (and least uplifting) ones aren’t nearly as caustic as their equivalents at UofC. Mt. Holyoke has Stop looking around… KEEP WORKING!, UofC has WORK! bitch. Mt. Holyoke has Phuong FOCUS!, UofC has Get Back to Work, Fool!.
I dread to think what the Regenstein Library would look like if UofC students adorned the carrels with as many pictures of people as you can find at Mt. Holyoke. Their carrels include classic drawings of women, repurposed with subversive, ironic captions (Mommy, when I grow up I want to help smash the white racist homophobic patriarchal, bullshit paradigm too!), and inspirational figures like Mother Theresa. T.S. Eliot, who sparked a firestorm at UofC, also makes an appearance.
Quotes are popular both at Mt. Holyoke and UofC, but where UofC leans towards quotes from songs, movies or literature, often with a fatalistic or depressing twist, Mt. Holyoke’s quotes would fit better on a motivational poster or Hallmark card. I know who I am and who I can be in Spanish, Not all those who wander are lost, Just when the catepillar[sic*] thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.
I could find no fatalism, no despair, no suffering under a burdensome workload. If their study carrels are any indication, Mt. Holyoke students are a happy, hopeful, motivated bunch.
I imagine that if carrels were assigned and so clearly marked by their owners at UofC, it would turn into the perfect setup for targeted hate notes. What an opportunity– you could write Kayli is dumb or Nate sucks where where Kaylea and Nick would certainly see it!
Notes left for the owners of Mt. Holyoke’s study carrels abound– positive, uplifting notes. It’s not like UofC students don’t leave uplifting messages for one another; there’s wishes of good luck, assertions of a brighter future, and expressions of faith in others’ abilities. While Mt. Holyoke has wishes of good luck as well, most notes are more focused on the individual rather than achievements. It’s not “You’ll ace your exams”, it’s “I love you with all my ♡“, “You have beautiful eyes“, “♡ you!!!“, “You study so hard. So hard. It is awesome.” (At UofC, I could imagine this being written viciously– the most “awesome” students are the ones who ace everything without having to study.).
One could argue that the personalized nature of the study carrels is what allows the notes to be focused on the individual; entirely possible, but I would suggest that the presence of the “I ♡ you” in the elevator might also indicate a broader cultural trend of emphasizing the inherent qualities of the individual more than their achievements.
Love. Life. Happy. Please. Just. Never. These are words that leap out when you run the text of my (admittedly tiny) corpus of Mt. Holyoke College library writings through a word cloud generator. (And “carrel”, of course, thanks to all those “Please don’t use my…” notes.) There must be issues somewhere beneath the surface, but Mt. Holyoke’s library is strikingly suggestive of a positive, supportive environment full of hopeful, motivated young women.
* One thing that jumped out at me in the Mt. Holyoke writing is that people are far less concerned with others’ spelling and grammar. I have a whole section in the Crescat Graffiti book dedicated to orthography in the Reg; truly, you violate the norms of spelling and grammar at your own peril at UofC. But at Mt. Holyoke, I found no commentary mocking catepillar, the corrected focis, or acrilic.