What once was a center of student gathering and collaborative learning is now a shell of itself. But looking closer, vestiges of its tumultuous history can be found. Behind locked doors, nestled in heating vents, or dangling from the ceiling. Are these symptomatic of neglect? Or opportunity? Professor and poet Mairead Byrne shows us the covert magic of the Old Library.
Some sound effects by BBC
Music by Chad Crouch
Reach us on Instagram @rizdeology
Season 3 produced by Olivia Schroder and Zora Gamberg. Sound editing by Harry Pont. Graphic design by Aanya Arora.
Produced in collaboration with the Fleet Library at RISD
I want to introduce you to one of the best-kept secret on campus.
Head into College Building, the Benefit St. entrance. Proceed into the foyer. You’ll see stairs on either side of you. Head up the left, and when you reach the top, you’ll see a door on your right. The door’s probably locked, so tap your ID card on the door handle.
Welcome to the OId Library.
Right now, we’re in a long, rectangular two-story room entirely clad in wood and covered in huge windows. My favorite windows are to the right. They let in beautiful light, especially in the Spring. They have these adorable shutters you can close from the inside, you can’t miss them.
Looking up, you’ll see the mezzanine wrapping around the entire space. The perimeter of the space is occupied by alcoves of book shelves, above and below. And if you look directly above you, you’ll see a set of chandeliers lighting the space.
What have I brought you here for? Well, one day it could be a poetry open mic, another a 3D sound performance, or even for a VR class. But today we’re here to talk to Mairead Byrne, LAS coordinator. Her office is tucked away in the Old Library.
Head towards those big windows I mentioned earlier. On your right you’ll see a stack of chairs. In this alcove is a wood door that camouflages perfectly into the surrounding bookshelves. There might be a poster on the door for the aforementioned poetry reading. Go ahead and approach the door.
[knock on Mairead’s door]
Olivia: Hi! …This is Juno.
Mairead: Hi Juno, how ya doin’? Come in, come in…
Juno is Sofia’s dog who tags along with rizdeology everywhere we go. She’s really sweet.
[they say hi]
Mairead has an awesome office. It’s painted a cerulean blue with wood cabinets and bookshelves on the walls. There is a cushioned seat on one side and a large wooden table on the other. Right now, the table is covered in student poetry books. I mean completely covered.
Mairead: The students that are in week seven came in here during the class just to have a look at what other students previously did. And you’ll recognize this Livi…
Olivia: Yes! This is the one we did the open mic for
Zora: Oh, so are these all from your class?
Mairead: These are all books from the class, and I try to privilege recent works…
Mairead teaches several poetry courses at RISD. The Old Library is her classroom that she has taken under her wing. I’ll let her introduce herself.
Mairead: Well, my name is Mairead Byrne, and I usually say my name rhymes with parade so that people are confident in using it. It’s actually the Irish for the English name Margaret. And we actually get to make up our own “professor of what,” so I basically say I’m a professor of poetry and poetics. Poetry because I’m a poet–that’s my primary commitment–but poetics because that is thinking about poetry, and about the function of poetry, and about contexts for poetry. So that it’s broader in some way than the actual art form.
Mairead has been at RISD for over twenty years and has created a really exciting environment for poetics. I’ve taken a couple classes with Mairead and have learned so much, both from her, and the space we’re in. So, let’s go back out into the Old Library.
Mairead: Come on, Juno.
Olivia: So, the Old Library…
Mairead: It’s an amazing room. It’s almost like a ship. It has a mezzanine so it’s almost like a bridge. It was purpose built as a library in the 1930s and it has been kind of cannibalized. Different departments are going to be angry when I say that, but it has been kind of cannibalized by departments which use it for their own ends for a few years. At one point the sound laboratory was here and these baffles were put in. And whatever was most useful was stripped away again when they got a better space. Then, we have the VR stuff here–these are lovely alcoves, here. But they have gray locked panels on them now and they’re really secure. That does affect the space.
Mairead: The space has good acoustics, in my opinion. Down through the years, acapella groups–Brown and RISD acapella and theatre groups–will perform here. And it’s a really responsive, sympathetic space. I think that no department takes care of it. The only department that takes care of it is facilities. Facilities make it look its best at the beginning of every semester. The tender love it gets as far as it gets any tender love and care is from facilities. I’m really grateful for that. It’s beautiful. One would love to polish it all. I’ve been teaching here since 2006 and I feel I’m very lucky to do that. Probably the only reason I can do it is because it’s neglected.
When we were emailing with Mairead, one of her responses was so articulate I wanted to quote her here:
“Whenever I think neglect at RISD is a measure of merit, I think of the Old Library and know that neglect is a measure of itself and other values, but not the value of what is neglected and overlooked.
“Neglect is also what allows opportunity: to sneak in, to make a space, even if transient. The Old Library can be a place of amazing encounter and configuration.”
Mairead: I came in earlier and there was just someone sitting in the window, with their back turned. I’ve seen people building prayer spaces. The RISD Exhibitionists used it a lot for plays. They put on cabaret here, and it really was a cabaret. They had round tables all over the floor. It was wonderful.
Mairead: Students like secret spaces. In the heating vents–Jack Silva mightn’t like to hear this–but in the heating vents, there are books of poetry. And if I look at these carved wooden cabinets, I’ve known students to inhabit them. Like, small students. Like, small students! As you can imagine. But also there’s slide-out shelves for maps and I’ve known students to carve the underside of those and make prints. It’s a very personalized space, but it is secret in a way.
One of those not-so-well-kept secrets is the Mike Fink Aerie, on the mezzanine. This alcove is full of biographies, atlases, magazines, knicknacks, and a big red, leather armchair that is cracking from age.
Olivia: Could you try to describe what we’re looking at right now?
Mairead: We’re looking at a kind of museum rendition–a compressed museum rendition of Mike Fink’s office. About 10 years ago, we set up this ‘Mike Fink Aerie,’ A-E-R-I-E, and we had an opening and everything, about 60 people came, it was great! But then, after a certain amount of time, there was pressure on him to wrap it up and take the stuff away. And this was empty again. And low and behold, then, in the weeks before he retired, I saw him coming in with a TA pretty regularly and then one day it was all back again. It’s basically if someone comes and sits here, it’s their office for the length of time that they’re here.
But, Mike Fink isn’t the only one who has been pressured to diminish their presence in the Old Library…
Olivia: I think what’s more noticeable when we’re up here is the empty bookshelves. It’s a classroom space so it’s not as noticeable, but when we’re up here, we’re just surrounded–in really close proximity–with all these empty bookshelves…
I failed to mention the fact that there are no books in the Old Library. Just loads and loads of empty bookshelves. Which kind of defeats the point of calling it a library, don’t you think?
It’s called the Old Library because this used to be the library before Fleet came around. Fleet is grand. It’s home to collections and resources much too large for the Old Library to handle. So, the name stuck, but nothing else did. However, that doesn’t necessarily explain why these shelves remain empty. There is no shortage of books or paper material at RISD. Why, then, are there no books in the Old Library?
Mairead: There have been at different times. I have loads of books that I don’t need and I have often kind of stocked one of the alcoves with books. But will be pressure–different departments or divisions have overseen it at different times–there will be pressure not to put books in the shelves. But, I don’t know. I don’t even understand why it’s neglected because I think it’s so beautiful. I think that people don’t see it for what it is…
Mairead: It has one entrance, okay, and one exit. That controls the number of people that can be here at any time. So you would have to, for insurance purposes, have another exit. I think that if that happened, the usability of the room–people might change their view.
Mairead: I just don’t…I don’t know why…I think some people see it as a wonderful space; acoustically, visually, socially, and even for individuals. But I think that no department does. They just see it as what they can use it for temporary purposes until they get something better.
In the end, I’m left just as puzzled as I was before. The way facilities are managed at RISD is a mystery to students. Facilities, department jurisdiction, and the folks who use it day-to-day are all layers that contribute to the way a space is used on campus. It’s hard to track who is in charge of what, and who is authorized to make decisions.
And somewhere in this bureaucratic fog is the reason books can’t be on the shelves. But sometimes, they find a way. On occasion, I’ve found a handful of chapbooks in the alcove that leads to Mairead’s office door. And then, just as silently as they appear, they are gone.
The Old Library is always in-between. Padlocked walls keep secrets. A museum materializes in the shadows. Discarded sound equipment hangs from the mezzanine. A prayer space emerges in an alcove. And still, no books.
That’s where the magic is. That’s where the Old Library’s power lies.
I’m going to quote Mairead’s email again, here:
“So in some ways I am thankful for neglect because if the Old Library were valued, as it has been fleetingly…I might not have access. Neglect can shelter opportunity. You see the big locks on the doors securing the Illustration VR equipment. These locks are so secure that it created a big problem recently when a key was lost as they proved resistant to every attempt to break them. What is valued tends to be cordoned off.
“But as I say, if those great strengths were supported and realized and celebrated, the covert, uncelebrated magic that happens there might not be admitted.”
Mairead: In my ideal world where all my dreams come true, I’ve always thought about that, I’d like to curate this space. I’d like to have it as a performance space, social space, multi-use space. I’d like the door to be open to everyone at all times. Textiles, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, has hangings going right down the floors. It’s a contribution. I would love if the division of Liberal Arts and all the faculty could in fact restock the bookcases and people could just come in and read and take books if they want it.
So we could start an actual collection in the Old Library. Or hold a performance. Or just meet with a friend. It doesn’t have to stop at the administration.
Olivia: But, like you said, it creates opportunity for people to find their own way.
Mairead: Yeah, it’s a marginal space. It’s the biggest marginal space you’ll ever see. But would buy this furniture for this place? Would you? Would you put locked panels on those alcoves? Is this RISD? Is this adaptive reuse? Is this sensitivity to architecture? Is this a creative use of space? Where is RISD? You know?
Zora: Very absent.
Mairead: But then again it’s a treasure, then. For those who see it as a treasure, it’s a treasure. So you feel as if you’re getting away with something. It makes me happy, you know, it makes me happy.
The Old Library is the reason I got involved with rizdeology. When I learned about its history, I desperately wanted to tell this story, so that Mairead’s love, and the love I now feel, could be shared.
There is enormous potential for this space to serve RISD community members in such varied ways. But the tragedy is in how it is overlooked and cast aside. We can only imagine how popular and valuable this place would be if it had more careful attention.
Mairead is right in asking, is this RISD?
What is RISD, anyway? On the school website it states: “We value collaborative interplay across design, fine arts and the liberal arts to cultivate deep literacies, to shape cumulative understanding, to transform thought and to expand making practices.”
I struggle to find evidence of this in the Old Library. I do not see interplay, I see barriers; in place of cumulative understanding, I see abandoned equipment; empty shelves replace deep literacies... and what about transformative thought? Instead I see departments making do until something better comes along.
But it is this very disregard that creates magic. Despite the neglect, loving individuals bring life to the Old Library. Faculty inspire us to care. Students find makeshift ways to grow. And facilities maintain the space so it is clean and beautiful.
Right there. That is RISD.
If this is your first time hearing about the Old Library and all the secrets it holds, I really suggest you check it out. Maybe books aren’t in its future, but what is? That could be up to you to discover.
And if you find this isn’t the place for you, keep asking yourself: what is? Is it your studio? Carr Haus? Anywhere your friends and peers are? Where is that place that makes you want to love, to imagine, to rest, to care? Where is the place you can hide your secrets?
If there is a space you’d like us to highlight on rizdeology, or if you have any thoughts to share, you can message us on our instagram, @rizdeology, or email us at email@example.com. And thanks for listening!
This episode was written and narrated by me, Olivia Schroder. It was edited and produced by Sofia Carrera-Britten and Zora Gamberg. Rizdeology is sponsored by the Fleet Library at RISD.
License credits: BBC for some sound effects, and Chad Crouch for music.