The positive discourse of the Mt. Holyoke library

I was excited to visit Mt. Holyoke College on a recent trip, anticipating that an all-female student body might produce a different kind of library graffiti than I’ve seen at the University of Chicago or Berkeley. Indeed, I was not disappointed.

Their library is seven floors, though most of them are confined to a fairly small central tower. The perimeter of most floors is lined with study carrels– some in more private nooks than others– but like at Berkeley, the study carrels are assigned. Unlike at Berkeley, this does actually appear to have cut down on the amount of graffiti on the carrels.

In fact, an afternoon and two mornings of scouring the library, I only found a small handful of graffiti in the library. It’s entirely possible there’s a mother lode I missed, not knowing where to look– it’s a pretty confusing building to navigate. Defying my own latrinalia ban, I even checked the bathrooms I came across– including the one men’s room– to no avail.

Stairwell graffiti

Most of the graffiti I found was in the narrow stairwell connecting floors within the tower, under the stickers labeling the floors. Apparently, the 3rd floor (which houses the books on Economics; Communities and Women’s Studies; Social Pathology; Socialism, Communism and Anarchism; and Political Science1) is the floor of doom. The students have nothing to say about the 4th floor (Local Government; Colonies and Colonization; International Law/Relations; Law; Education; Music; Visual Arts; Architecture; Sculpture; Drawing, Design, Illustration; Painting) beyond clarifying that it is, in fact, the 4th floor. The world of languages and literatures on the 5th floor earns it the designation of the floor of “wonder”, along with what I assume is an in-joke on the left (“3 … 5 SIR!”). No other floor signs I found had any commentary.

Random nook graffiti

In a back corner of one of the lower, non-tower floors, I found a couple work tables, and two pieces of graffiti. We have what appears to be a headless, armless woman in a short dress with a bow on it, and a vagina. I’m guessing the former is intended to be a style of drawing suitable for fashion design sketching, rather than a statement about how revealing clothing disempowers women. And the vagina? Well, it was the only representation of genitalia I found in all the markings in the library. After seeing Chicago’s penis-to-vagina drawing ratio (9 to 0) and Berkeley’s (2 to 1) I was curious to see whether the absence of penises among the students in a women’s college carried over to the library graffiti. One drawing of a vagina out of a total of two drawings, out of a grand total of 5 found graffiti sites doesn’t make for a sample size of any significance, but I still figure it’s worth noting. Also worth noting is that this one vagina was the closest thing to a sexual reference I could find. (I’m disinclined to count the single, empty bottle of Busch on a carrel; what I perceive as significance is probably just my UofC tendency to see things as symbolic of penises combined with the Berkeley interest in bush.)

Elevator graffiti

At one point in my wandering, I found my way into an elevator, where I discovered a bit more graffiti: I ♡ you, encapsulated in another heart for extra emphasis. This is followed up by “me too” along with the contrarian “I don’t”.

That’s it for the library graffiti I was able to find– and even strolling around the campus more broadly didn’t yield much more than Boys are dumb written on a display board for posting fliers.

But wait, there’s more!

In a place like the Mt. Holyoke library, it would be a mistake to limit the discussion of “library graffiti” strictly to the actual graffiti. Even a cursory inspection of the space indicates that words written by students, for students, contribute immensely to the ambiance. At Mt. Holyoke, the words don’t take the form of anonymous graffiti, but messages posted on study carrels.

The problem of carrel thievery

There are official signs posted all over the library explaining that carrels are reserved for individuals, and students without carrels should not simply commandeer whatever happens to be open. Yet, carrel thievery appears to be an actual issue– many carrels included their own personal note addressing the topic. It’s honestly a little surprising; almost all of the carrels are decorated, and/or littered with personal effects.

What I find amazing about these notes is the phrasing– often wordy, often including a greeting, remarkably polite and often leaving open the possibility of exceptions being made. Notes almost always have a “please”. Even the most direct and brusque notes have less serious, less creepy vibe than the equivalent note I came across at UofC, where claims of possession aren’t legitimate to begin with. A couple representative samples:

  • Hi! This carrel is reserved & used by Cory [redacted] who is writing a thesis & needs this space to work (and not go crazy). I’d prefer you to work somewhere else, but if I’m not here & you really need it, then welcome, weary traveler. If you leave items here, you will be ranted about/made fun of on the internet (not a threat, just how I deal with stress). (photo)
  • Hi! Welcome to Jenna’s Carrel. Please note the pretty decorations declaring this as my space. If you are not Jenna or one of her friends, go away (aka find somewhere else to study). (photo)
  • Hi, Even though I may not have left anything in this carrel to decorate and whatnot to show that there is someone who the carrel belongs to this year, it does not mean that the carrel is open to the public. Carrels are reserved to those who queued up for them. I don’t mind if others use this carrel when I’m not here, but please do not leave your stuff – books, newspapers, coffee cups etc in my carrel. Thanks. (photo)

Inspiration and motivation

Inspirational and motivational quotes are a common form of carrel decoration at Mt. Holyoke College. Even the most direct (and least uplifting) ones aren’t nearly as caustic as their equivalents at UofC. Mt. Holyoke has Stop looking around… KEEP WORKING!, UofC has WORK! bitch. Mt. Holyoke has Phuong FOCUS!, UofC has Get Back to Work, Fool!.

I dread to think what the Regenstein Library would look like if UofC students adorned the carrels with as many pictures of people as you can find at Mt. Holyoke. Their carrels include classic drawings of women, repurposed with subversive, ironic captions (Mommy, when I grow up I want to help smash the white racist homophobic patriarchal, bullshit paradigm too!), and inspirational figures like Mother Theresa. T.S. Eliot, who sparked a firestorm at UofC, also makes an appearance.

Quotes are popular both at Mt. Holyoke and UofC, but where UofC leans towards quotes from songs, movies or literature, often with a fatalistic or depressing twist, Mt. Holyoke’s quotes would fit better on a motivational poster or Hallmark card. I know who I am and who I can be in Spanish, Not all those who wander are lost, Just when the catepillar[sic*] thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.

I could find no fatalism, no despair, no suffering under a burdensome workload. If their study carrels are any indication, Mt. Holyoke students are a happy, hopeful, motivated bunch.

Positive discourse

I imagine that if carrels were assigned and so clearly marked by their owners at UofC, it would turn into the perfect setup for targeted hate notes. What an opportunity– you could write Kayli is dumb or Nate sucks where where Kaylea and Nick would certainly see it!

Notes left for the owners of Mt. Holyoke’s study carrels abound– positive, uplifting notes. It’s not like UofC students don’t leave uplifting messages for one another; there’s wishes of good luck, assertions of a brighter future, and expressions of faith in others’ abilities. While Mt. Holyoke has wishes of good luck as well, most notes are more focused on the individual rather than achievements. It’s not “You’ll ace your exams”, it’s “I love you with all my ♡“, “You have beautiful eyes“, “♡ you!!!“, “You study so hard. So hard. It is awesome.” (At UofC, I could imagine this being written viciously– the most “awesome” students are the ones who ace everything without having to study.).

One could argue that the personalized nature of the study carrels is what allows the notes to be focused on the individual; entirely possible, but I would suggest that the presence of the “I ♡ you” in the elevator might also indicate a broader cultural trend of emphasizing the inherent qualities of the individual more than their achievements.

In conclusion

Love. Life. Happy. Please. Just. Never. These are words that leap out when you run the text of my (admittedly tiny) corpus of Mt. Holyoke College library writings through a word cloud generator. (And “carrel”, of course, thanks to all those “Please don’t use my…” notes.) There must be issues somewhere beneath the surface, but Mt. Holyoke’s library is strikingly suggestive of a positive, supportive environment full of hopeful, motivated young women.

If anyone else wants to explore the Mt. Holyoke library, I have the full photo set and Google Docs transcription available.

1Getting Around in LIS

* One thing that jumped out at me in the Mt. Holyoke writing is that people are far less concerned with others’ spelling and grammar. I have a whole section in the Crescat Graffiti book dedicated to orthography in the Reg; truly, you violate the norms of spelling and grammar at your own peril at UofC. But at Mt. Holyoke, I found no commentary mocking catepillar, the corrected focis, or acrilic.

Berkeley library graffiti: violence, identity, and vaginas

About a month ago, with the help of a friend I got into Doe Memorial Library at UC Berkeley on a busy Saturday afternoon, where I proceeded to photograph all the graffiti I could find in unoccupied study carrels. The resulting data set, while small, is markedly different from the UChicago graffiti corpus in a number of ways, most notably pertaining to violence, identity, and vaginas. (The full photo set, as always, is available on Flickr.)


One piece of data that I gathered, wrote about, but ultimately chose not to publish in the statistical analysis for Inkling was the use of “kill” in UofC graffiti. It comes up nine times, and in each case the suggested violence is self-directed: Kill… me (5x), yourself (2x), myself (1x), us (1x).

Violence is also a recurring theme in the Berkeley graffiti I found– the most recurring theme, in fact. “Kill” was the #1 most-used word, but almost none of the violence was self-directed. “Nerds” were the most common target of violence (3x), but “idiots” and “vilifiers” [sic] were each represented once. One of the “kill nerds” did have the addition “yourself”, though that strikes me as retaliation more than an indication of a culture of self-directed violence. The death of lawyers is also wished for in one piece.

The data set for Berkeley is so small, I hesitate to draw any conclusions based on numbers. Still, it seems worth pointing out that in one (incompletely documented) visit to the Berkeley library, I found 5 instances of “kill”, where I’ve only found 9 in 2+ years at UofC. Though perhaps people are just feeling violently towards nerds these days, who’s to say.


Identity, particularly as connected to ethnicity and/or religion, is not a hot topic in UofC graffiti. There’s [heart] Black, but that’s more than a little ambiguous (Lewis Black? The color? . There’s a reference to Jews that involves stereotypes. And someone once confessed to having sexual preferences other than their own ethnicity. It really doesn’t come up much, and when it does, people don’t really leap on it.

At Berkeley, the opposite appears to be true. Even writing the name of an ethnicity or religion (which inevitably invites people to comment) seems to be its own genre. Each sub-bullet below shows the modifications or additions:


  • Catholics rule!
    • Though they aren’t “hip” w/ Berkeley
  • Hindu rule
  • Everybody wants to be black
  • I Love being African!
    • Cool!
    • Liar lol no one does
  • black powerless hatred [this is hard to read, I'm not 100% sure of it]
  • I love Koreans
  • Asian pride
    • White + Asian pride
  • Asians rule
    • Asians drule
    • Asians will never rule
    • Asians will never do rule
    • Asians are fags
    • Asians FAG
    • Asians FLAG


At UofC, the penis is the undisputed king of genitalia. In fact, you have to go to the secondary female sex characteristics– breasts– before you can find a body part that’s drawn at all. In the text, too, there are only four references to vaginas, compared to 17 penis references.

Berkeley’s distribution of genitalia references is much more egalitarian. Yes, there are two doodles of penises. But there’s also a stand-alone doodle of of a vagina. (There’s also a doodle of a naked girl, but hers is not included so I don’t think it quite counts.) Between “pussy” and “vagina”, female genitalia is referenced four times in my Berkeley graffiti sample– whereas there is only a single reference to penises.

A tour of Korean graffiti

Korean isn’t in the top five for non-English languages with the most graffiti, but it’s well-represented for a language with relatively few students. (See A look at non-English graffiti for details.) I can’t even decipher the Korean alphabet, so David Yung Ho Kim and Jessica Choi have helpfully translated the graffiti I’ve been accumulating over the past few years. Many thanks!

The difference in content when compared with, say, the Arabic graffiti, is pretty striking. Perhaps a chart of some sort is called for, one of these days.

Working hard

The graffiti to the right, from the Regenstein stacks, the small text on the left reads “It’s possible to succeed. You can do it!” with the giant response “Fuck you you asshole.”

Found in a Crerar study carrel: “I’m gonna study like a crazy maniac . . . Until the day that I become a surgeon! -Who?”

From a whiteboard on the A-level: “I’ll be sleeping at the library today. Tomorrow? Probably as well.”

From a study cubicle in the Reg: “Let’s try our best. -I want to excel. -Be kind. [Let’s be kind to others.] -Let’s not compare ourselves to others.”

Hardly working

To the right, from the A-level of the Reg: “Lee Jung Hyun = Pork Ribs. I love it. I wanna eat her. – Andrew = Huge intestines. The most delicious.”

Another A-level whiteboard: “Let’s play on the weekend!!”

Finally, on an A-level whiteboard, next to the famous “Winter is the suck” haiku, is a much saucier piece of Korean: “You need some spanking, DanBee Kim.”

Crerar: where the German speakers study

Over the last month, I’ve come to realize that my initial assessment of Crerar’s lack of graffiti probably didn’t take into account the cyclical nature of library graffiti. It’s exploded since then, leaving me to think that Crerar graffiti might be washed clean in December, just like the Reg.

Further trips into the stacks have shown that graffiti is indeed written on the study carrels, and it’s the blackboards on the second and third floor study rooms– rather than the whiteboards on the first floor– that are the better analog to the whiteboards in the all-night A-level space in the Reg.

I also recently marveled at the complete lack of German graffiti. This still seems to be the case* in the Reg, but so far it seems that German is the #1 non-English language in Crerar.

This morning, I found the following prayer on a blackboard:

My dear God in heaven,
For the day I give you thanks. For this space, I give you thanks. For my success, I give you thanks. For the time I give you thanks. For all that I give you thanks.

I Googled a couple excerpts to check, and it doesn’t appear to be a (verbatim) quote from anything in particular. It may, in fact, be heartfelt. An irony-free prayer of thanks to God– I’ve never seen such a thing in the Reg, where despair, sharp retorts, and Nietzsche are the preferred form of self-expression.

Granted, not all the German graffiti is so profound or touching; we’ve also got the numbers 6-10 and what I understand to mean six pebble (yes, without the plural ending).

My current office arrangements make it easy enough for me to duck upstairs for a couple minutes right as the library opens, at least on most days, but Crerar starts filling up early and the study rooms with the chalkboards appear to be in high demand. Not every day is a hit, but expect exponential growth in the Crerar Library graffiti corpus in the coming months.

* I recently came across one line of German, prefacing the rest of the quote in French. I’m not sure whether to count it as “legitimate”. On one hand, I find myself wondering if there’s some connection, perhaps, to a French translation of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. On the other hand, I wonder if the German is in response to my assertion that there was no German graffiti in the Reg.

A look at non-English graffiti

The most common non-English languages found in Regenstein graffiti are Arabic (12), French (10), Chinese (9), Spanish (8), and Latin (6). Three of those five fall under the category of “less-commonly taught languages”. This got me thinking: clearly the amount of graffiti in a language isn’t proportional to how many students study it. (Various traits, ranging from handwriting to grammatical mistakes, suggest that most of the non-English graffiti is written by students of the language rather than native speakers.)

I turned to the enrollment data for the beginning level of each language, and to compensate for any significant fluctuation* I averaged the data from the last three years– the same amount of time I’ve been collecting graffiti.

Taking the number of pieces of graffiti in each language, and dividing it by the average elementary enrollment gets you the following results:

What’s not included here is Armenian– off the charts at 2 pieces of graffiti with an average elementary enrollment of 1. Once you eliminate that outlier, you’ve got BCS (Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian) at .6, Korean at .31, Georgian at .25, and Arabic and Turkish tied at .18.

Also, from the “random observations on non-English graffiti” department, there’s zero pieces of graffiti written in German, and all but one of the pieces of Italian graffiti are “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate.” (Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.)

Make of all this what you will.

* For the most part, the enrollment numbers are remarkably consistent from year to year. Arabic was more volatile, dropping to 55 in 2009 after being in the 70′s since 2005, and the 60′s since 2003. Japanese also took a hit in 2009, falling to 45 instead of the upper 50′s it had enjoyed the previous two years.


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