Student Stories

Life in the library: reading, research, and recreation

No matter how often students joke about living in Regenstein Library, or how many hours they actually spend there reviewing for their final exams, it is impossible for any single person to explore everything our campus libraries have to offer. With massive collections spanning five buildings and even more materials available online, UChicago is home to an exceptional body of scholarship, history, and things that are just plain weird. Jumping into these collections can daunting, but Rebecca Starkey, Librarian for College Instruction and Outreach, is here to make it easy. She shared insights about student resources, the libraries’ histories, and, of course, hidden treasures to be found within their walls.

In her position, Rebecca focuses on developing programming to make the University library resources more fun and accessible to students. During O-Week, she coordinates a library open house for incoming students to explore essential features—printing and course reserves, for example—that are available from the beginning of the school year. There is always some fun along the way; this year, she hints that at the open house there will be some crafting opportunities and library swag. She also supports the BA thesis program by developing classes to teach students research skills and connect them with librarians in their field.

Rebecca is a UChicago alum (AB’95). She first became interested in becoming a librarian when she was a student worker in the D’Angelo Law Library while she lived right next door in Burton-Judson Courts.

“One of the great parts of my job is that I can work with the undergrads and help them navigate our complex research library,” she said. “When I was a student here I didn’t make use of the library as much as I should have. It was intimidating to me….One thing that I really like doing is break[ing] down those barriers for students so they feel comfortable asking for help but also have a better understanding about what libraries do and how they support scholarship.”

Rebecca finds that much about the UChicago lifestyle remains unchanged since her days as an undergraduate.

“I think what has remained the same is the intellectual curiosity that all students have had at [UChicago]. There are a lot of great people coming in who are very smart, excited, and enthusiastic,” she said. “What I’ve noticed about today’s students is that they are very well-rounded. They have many interests outside the classroom as well as academically, and are very involved--wanting to be active in the community, wanting to go out, and think of their college experience outside of campus, so that’s really exciting. I would say that it was a much more monastic existence when I was a student here. You worked hard and you studied."

From her more “monastic” days, Rebecca likes to recall stories of her favorite campus library, the Reg, that are both familiar and foreign to students of today.

“I got yelled at on the 5th floor when I was an undergrad because I opened a can of soda and the noise was too loud,” she said. “There was also amazing bright carpeting on every floor of Regenstein. They were color-coded in these really bright, 70s colors like blue, mustard, orange, really technicolor.”

In addition to coordinating outreach, Rebecca also works at the reference desk on the first floor of the Reg. Watching the students come and go on the bustling first floor—which, she said, is quite different than her own undergraduate experience of the library—provides an interesting perspective into the social and scholarly life of the modern UChicago student.

“People here are really smart and they’re working on amazing projects,” she said while describing her passion for working directly with students. “We get asked about almost any topic you can imagine. We get questions on doing research in Chicago, going abroad, and archival questions. We have people looking for data, photos, images, all sorts of different research needs.”

Students can talk to a variety of specialized librarians for help in their fields. Regenstein has, for example, a librarian dedicated to economics who can help students find company information for a job interview or data sets for a research paper. They have an expert in geospatial imaging, or making maps out of data. With librarians fluent in many languages, the libraries are constantly acquiring new materials from around the world as well—students may notice a growing collection of Japanese films and manga, for example. As more students decide to go abroad during their college experience, these specialists can help open doors to resources around the world.

“It’s not something you have to navigate on your own,” Rebecca said when asked what advice she gives to undergrads who might be overwhelmed. “This is a huge library system, and it’s probably very different from the public or school libraries you’re used to….You don’t have to be an expert on using the library, but you can make use of the experts we have to navigate it.”

These collections can open up a world of history in both the students’ preferred fields and the history of the libraries themselves, pillars of the University from its early days. For Rebecca, it’s UChicago’s collection of newspapers that fascinates.

“You could look at the Defender, which is an African American paper, and you can look at the Tribune, which is kind of conservative, and there was the Daily News, which was a little more left-leaning, and you can see how events were interpreted at different times.”

The library’s Special Collections Resource Center is a feast for curiosity, housing famous and influential scholarly works, from Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s diary to Enrico Fermi’s papers to Norman Maclean’s manuscript of The River Runs Through It. Students can also explore the archives of various on-campus student organizations, including costumes from plays, scrapbooks from College housing, Greek life records, yearbooks, and other records. The libraries remain an important archive of history, including the University’s own, connecting generations of students with their intellectual predecessors.  

Often, it is the library buildings themselves that carry some of the most interesting tales. “I watched Harrison Ford film The Fugitive in Crerar library,” recalled Rebecca. Among frequent questions that Rebecca receives at the reference desk are inquiries about the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction, or Chicago Pile-1, achieved by Enrico Fermi and his team under what was then the stands of Stagg Field. Now, this location is exactly where Regenstein Library sits. So, people are prone to ask, is there any leftover radiation?

“No, there is none,” Rebecca laughed. “It’s been tested.”

“I think the most incredible thing about Regenstein is that it is where the football field was,” she said, referring to the now relocated Stagg field. “They tore down the football field to build this big library.”

The symbolism of the Reg’s construction does seem to be in line with UChicago’s dedication to knowledge and depth of understanding, the fundamental mission that Rebecca and other librarians like her uphold through their work. 

“It’s a really important time right now to discuss information resources,” she said. “Understanding how to use information or locate good information is vital. One of my roles is to think about how students can gain those skills, not only to just get a good grade on their paper, but also for their future career plans, and so they can learn how to navigate our complex world.”

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Archival images used with permission from UChicago's Special Collections Resource Center.