Hitting the Books in Harper

Renovated study space in Harper Library gains popularity with students.
Photo by: 
Avi Schwab, Class of 2003
This is my last year here, so I really thought I should enjoy the architecture of this great space while I still can."...

 When Alex Gleckman really wants to focus on his schoolwork, he paces up and down the center of the Harper Library reading room.

"I think he looks ridiculous," his friend Jean-Michel Hoffman teased, as the two spread out their notebooks beneath one of the many desk lamps illuminating the room.

Since the University of Chicago renovated Harper Memorial Library, it has become an increasingly popular study spot for students like Gleckman and Hoffman, both first-years, who want to bury themselves in their readings or problem sets. The University closed Harper Library over the summer to begin its transformation into a 24-hour study space and café. When it reopened in September, the worn carpeting and threadbare chairs were gone, replaced by plush seating and improved lighting.

Four months later, at 4:00 p.m. on Thursday of finals week—with just 20 hours left until the end of exams—the new study space is humming with activity.

Gleckman and Hoffman are hard at work, studying for a morning calculus exam. "I'll be here for a while," Gleckman speculated. "Probably until 9:30 a.m."

"That's just him; I can't do that," said Hoffman, a first-year who has pulled "some pretty late ones" for his Human Being and Citizen class, but no all-nighters to date. They both turn back to their textbooks with grim determination.

The mood is livelier (and more caffeinated) in Common Knowledge, a new student-run coffee shop next to the library's reading room. The dozen students who populate the cavernous vestibule-turned-café have their books and laptops open. A graduate student is conducting office hours at a corner table. All have coffee. Two friends greet each other with a quick embrace in front of the bar. "Hey! I haven't seen you...or any other humans, really."

That sentiment may be common among the library denizens four and a half days into their final exams, but third-year Matthew Carville, his finals long completed, is going home to play video games after his shift at the café is over.

Carville, assistant manager of Common Knowledge, says Harper's atmosphere—with its gothic architecture and a pastry selection that evokes afternoon tea more than late-night cram sessions—is the reason he forgoes other student-run coffee shops like Cobb and Hallowed Grounds.

"This is such a beautiful place," he said. "I think students come here to get a break from going at it in the main room."

Carville says the library is now his first choice for "going at it." "[T]he new reading room is really wonderful," he said.

And he isn't the only student to add Harper to his routine.

"We can see by our returns that [the café] gradually got more and more popular, and more and more people bought stuff as the quarter went on," he said. "And the fact that we were one of the only coffee shops open during reading period meant a huge boost in sales."

These days, the library and café are frequented by a combination of undergraduates with morning classes in the classrooms below, College advisors with offices throughout the building, and graduate students, who third-year Liz Kerr claims are infamous for their coffee habits.

"All the graduate students come up at the same time in the afternoon. They ask us what time we're open until"—1:00 a.m.—"and they say 'Great, I'll get three shots of espresso,'" said Kerr, another café barista.

But fourth-year Emily Chase doesn't come to Harper for the coffee.

"All through college, I spent pretty much every night in the Reg," the political science major explained, reluctantly pulling herself away from a research paper on the evolution of the United States' wilderness policies. "But now I spend maybe 80% of my time in Harper. This is my last year here, so I really thought I should enjoy the architecture of this great space while I still can."

Photo collage: Avi Schwab (with permission from the University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center). See more of Avi's photos of Harper Library.

Tagged: Harper Commons, Common Knowledge, coffee shops, finals week