May I Join You?

Graphic by Alex Wisowaty

“The L&B Lap” is a painfully familiar routine to anyone fond of the seclusion afforded by the study nooks in Sterling Library’s L&B reading room. In case you’re not familiar with “The Lap,” it goes something like this: walking along the left side of the reading room, you pause by each of L&B’s cozy alcoves. Upon seeing the strewn pages or unaccompanied backpack of occupancy, you continue to the next one. And once you’ve stopped to peek into every nook, you turn back, resigning yourself to a desk, a long table, or maybe even Blue State. I can’t be the only one who sees something wrong with this picture. Why not share the space? What’s so wrong with two strangers studying side-by-side?

The appeal of these nooks is apparent: surrounded by books and dark wood paneling, your options once inside are few—read, write, think; this is not a social space. And yet, while study nooks are not exactly social hubs like Bass Cafe or the tables of Blue State, there is no reason that when one person is quietly working in one of the alcoves, it is not the standard operating procedure to join this person. Worse still, a library patron will often leave their stuff in one of these nooks, knowing full well that when they return no one will have infiltrated their hard-won space. Considering each nook is outfitted with enough chairs to accommodate at least five people, this social convention is both impractical and irrational.

As absurd as this phenomenon sounds, it really does happen. While writing this piece in (you guessed it)an L&B nook, I experienced the swift glance and pivot of no fewer than six other library goers who chose not to share the space with me. We shouldn’t have to skulk down the left side of L&B hoping to see a completely vacant  nook, when we could simply join one another in these obviously coveted study spots.

There are, of course, basic conventions of politeness that we should still follow. I’m not proposing that anyone with a laptop should loudly barrel into a nook with no announcement. That said, I know that anyone who frequents L&B has been frustrated to be forced to seek somewhere else to work, when they found their desired nook populated by just a single student.

When I reached out to some friends regarding their experiences with L&B Nook Politics,

their opinions were decidedly mixed. Some, like Margaret Grabar Sage, found little issue with the prospect of being joined by a stranger in one of the nooks, explaining “I think I would be annoyed if the person didn’t say anything, but if they came in and were like ‘hey, can I sit here’ I would obviously say yes.” If someone had only asked, two people and not one would have been able to use the nook. No lap. No Blue State necessary.

Not everyone I spoke to felt the same way Margaret did. Nell Gallogly defended the idea that while “it definitely wastes space, it’s also the best feeling to have that nook to your self, so I respect the first-come-first-served model.” Nevertheless, I wonder: aren’t there other places on campus in which one can be alone without, in the process, barring other students from joining in quiet study? Nell’s emphasis of the simple human desire to have a space just to oneself suggests  that perhaps there’s a more tectonic force informing the social expectations that keep us from sharing nooks.

If this mysterious social force is truly foundational, then it must apply to more situations than just nooks in L&B. To explore this notion further, I contacted a psychiatry professor who, on the condition of anonymity, explained that “people have an innate sense of dimensionality (distances between strangers and the boundaries that are uncomfortable to cross), which you can witness in the library, in coffee shops, buses, trains, any public space that has options for seating.” Given this psychological context, it makes sense how our general apprehension regarding sharing spaces extends itself to L&B. Furthermore, it makes our apprehension to share nooks in L&B understandable. But something can be understandable and irrational at the same time, which is exactly the case with our fear of sharing the nooks in L&B.

You might be wondering: is this piece really just about sharing little rooms in a library? I am well aware of the simplicity of my proposition that we should share the L&B nooks. This is not an earth-shattering idea. And it shouldn’t be. We should be able to share Yale with one another. Whether we’re occupying a nook in L&B, a table at Koffee, or a bench on Cross Campus, by creating these invisible screens around ourselves, we’re only providing each other with an irrational inconvenience.

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