24 November 2012

Shillelagh Saturday; Or, How I Really Feel About Touchdown Jesus

Deo gratias.
After  quite a few very long and painful football seasons, our day of reckoning has finally come. While I love to make a sport out of feigning my apathy for Notre Dame football during the offseason, I am as excited as any fan for tonight's game against the Trojans of USC. Win or lose, this has been a season of great drama and joy-so cheers to that.

While part of me stands in strong solidarity with those who are sickened by the excessed of collegiate athletics, I also cannot deny that a winning football team also reaps rewards for the libraries and academic programs of the schools involved. Whatever skepticism I may still have about head coach Brian Kelly, his arrival gift to university libraries and research made me slightly more receptive to his style. And as much as getting to the National Championship game would make any alum's heart sing, the thought of the libraries receiving their share of the $6.2 million BCS payout, win or lose at USC, is enough on its own to make this librarian happy.

Notre Dame's library has also been fatefully synonymous with the football program since the completion of the Word of Life mural on the facade of the current library building in 1964, popularly known as "Touchdown Jesus," which can be seen peeking out from behind the North end of the football stadium.

Now I have a big confession to make: 

           I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a sentimental lover of Touchdown Jesus.

As impressive an artistic and construction feat as the mural may be, I think of it more as a dated, pseudo-cubist eyesore. Generations of Note Dame students and fans have come to consider the mural as a treasured monument, which I consider to be somewhat of a tragedy. Thankfully, Notre Dame's library escaped the worst of hideous Brutalism that dominated university and library architecture so much in the 1960s and 1970s (for glowing examples, do an image search for 'Brutalist Libraries,' and then do some penance for the poor students who have to study at the University of Toronto). Among other things, this architectural movement is responsible for forever scarring many university students with the unfortunate association of studying with oppressive, bulging concrete boxes. The Word of Life may be unique in it own right as a mural, but I will be forever bewildered at the decision to build a monument to mid-20th century stone high-rises instead of constructing a library building that evokes the beauty, dignity, and timelessness of classical style, like many of the most famous, and most beautiful university libraries in Europe (or even those of the US Ivy League). I would probably have to hide from a large lynch mob, but if I were to become the university architect today, I would have no qualms replacing the current building with something more dignified and re-locating the mural to a more appropriate place (I hear the library parking lot could use a stylish re-surfacing job...).

The saddest feature of Touchdown Jesus, to me, is the fact that it makes the library itself more invisible than it already is. Most people who excitedly wander to the library on game days do so only to do one or more of a few things: 1) See the mural 2) Take the classic Touchdown Jesus pose picture, in front of the mural 3) Visit the 12th floor in order to see the stadium from one of the South desk windows, disturbing some diligent students in the process, or 4) Use the bathrooms on the lower level. I am sure that at least a few folks wander into the other areas of the library, where the real treasures are found, but football Saturdays continue to be a mostly missed opportunity for outreach librarians. Commentators on the Word of Life  have praised it for the sense of intellectual and spiritual tradition that the mural evokes. But let's face it-when visitors see Touchdown Jesus, they think of football, not books. It might just as well be installed as an extra marquee over the North stadium scoreboard, leaving room for the library to make an identity of its own.

Notre Dame football may be #1 in the BCS, the AP poll, and in our hearts forever, but if university libraries had a BCS rankings of their own, would we be proud? Here are some ponderables on that subject:

Apparently this student hasn't seen an SEC library lately.
1. ND vs. SEC There has been much hype about the potential match-up of Notre Dame and Alabama (or any SEC team) in the National Championship game. A matchup of their libraries might prove to be more interesting. Architecturally speaking, while not iconic, Alabama's library has a little more of a dignified look (for another beauty, see UK's library). Their website is not nearly as clunky as ND's. And 3.3 million volumes isn't a number to dismiss. But we'd probably edge out a win with our Theology and Medieval studies collections, as size is not everything.

Gayle Gorgas Library, University of Alabama
2. ND vs. USC

To a Notre Dame fan, USC is the scum of the earth. So it really, really, hurts to say this, but the University of Spoiled Children does have some redeeming qualities, especially in the library department.

Exhibit A: Hoose Philosophy Library, USC
The picturesque Hoose Reading Room holds more than a candle to the aesthetics of even the most beautiful of Notre Dame library interiors (Architecture and Law). I doubt that Matt Barkley or Max Wittek have set foot in here, but it is a sight for sore eyes. Doheny Library isn't so bad, either.

Bask in the glory of the dark wood.
Exhibit B: Holdings & Infrastructure
USC currently has a cool 4.5 million volumes, including a system of 23 branch libraries,  as well as more robust multi-media and digital collections and services. Once again, USC is no where close to ND in Theology...a relief to many, I'm sure. 

Exhibit C: Web Portal
The homepage for the USC Libraries is sleek, well-designed, self-aware, and functional. The same has never been true of the Hesburgh Libraries' homepage

 There are many more statistics and images I could pull as examples, but a BCS competition between libraries would likely be much more tenuous than a football game. But the heartening reality is that, like in football, the game of life is not always won by the one with the most resources or social clout. One might be tempted to say that it is remarkable that Notre Dame continues to sustain the number of quality academic programs and talent that it does with a library system that is, in many areas, unremarkable. But then again, those universities with opulent library systems also tend to be those universities that are more invested in graduate research (and revenue) than undergraduate education, so perhaps the realities of resource limits are more full of hope than they first appear. J.R.R. Tolkien was fond of saying that one ought to attend Mass where one is most annoyed by the surroundings-bad singing, lousy architecture, and poor preaching-because it reinforces the reality of the Eucharist and the Church as the Body of Christ. Similarly, I will always look upon the Word of Life with scornful eyes, but will do so with the hope that the university will continue to flourish, even in spite of passing architectural fads.  


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