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I Lost Five Pounds in Britain

A librarian eating a granola bar at her desk. A student sipping coffee. Two peers discussing a PowerPoint for their upcoming class project. These may seem like ordinary scenes to the typical Duke undergrad, but to two roommates returning from jolly old England, these occurrences now seem out of place and extraordinary.

Last semester, we studied abroad at two different universities in central London. Although the names of our schools may have been different, they shared a uniquely British attitude towards scholarship, which is best exemplified through the rules and structure of their libraries. We learned the hard way that Maughan and Senate House Libraries, though stately and beautiful on the outside, were freezing and rarely open (by a Duke student’s standards) on the inside. Gone were the joys of 24-hour IM-a-Librarian and the helpful faces of OIT. We kid you not, the libraries literally closed at 10 p.m. on weekdays. 10 p.m. This was kind of unhelpful when you didn’t even start working until about 10:30.

It wasn’t that British people weren’t social—it’s just that their libraries weren’t. There were no cushiony chairs—anywhere. No group study rooms or flashy technology, a la the Link. In fact, it soon became apparent that in England, libraries were actually used for their original purpose—looking at books in silence, without food or drink (except for bottled water).

Fast forward one month to the beginning of spring semester back in the dirty D. After a week or so, the time finally came when we actually had to acknowledge we went to school here and, thinking nothing of it, we made our home-from-abroad debut in Perkins.

We can honestly say that, although our debut trips were on separate occasions, our initial impressions of the library caused us both to experience a culture shock for the first time since returning.

Sights of students, professors and even a librarian eating in Perkins evoked the feeling for Emily. This scene was in stark contrast to one of her first visits to Senate House Library. There, while innocently typing a paper on her laptop and snacking on a Pop-Tart, she had been approached by a British Librarian on the warpath. After scolding her for her “zero-tolerance offense”—i.e. eating in the library—and confiscating her wrapper, the librarian proceeded to fine her five pounds (roughly equivalent to two pints of cider).

During that first trip back to Perkins, Emily did purchase a cheese platter from von der Heyden. However, she uneasily ate it in about three minutes flat, afraid that some authoritarian librarian dictator with a clipboard was lurking among the stacks, ready to call her out.

For Sam, the first sign of discomfort came from an action that before Maughan library would have seemed mundane. The people with whom she was studying went to von der Heyden for a coffee and food run. Despite being a coffee addict and exhausted (the British library would have already been closed for two hours), she turned down the offer to join them as she had become unwillingly accustomed to working without that extra jolt of craved-for caffeine.

So in the end, it wasn’t the first basketball game, or the first class, or having basketball players in our first class that required an adjustment. Instead, we were surprised that our biggest transition back to Duke ended up taking place within the cheerful atmosphere of Perkins.

Disclaimer: Although it may seem like we spent all of our time abroad scrutinizing the library system, we actually did spend the majority of our experience elsewhere. Cheers!


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