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Feb. 8, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 7

Campus Notebook

After six decades of thesis use, Firestone removing metal carrels

By Fran Hulette
Published in the February 8, 2012, issue


Firestone carrels, circa 1948.
Photo: Princeton University Archives
Firestone carrels, circa 1948.
Nicolas Dumont ’02 at work in his carrel.
Photo: Josephine Sittenfeld ’02
Nicolas Dumont ’02 at work in his carrel.

They were cramped, poorly lit, and, well, kind of ugly. But Firestone Library’s study carrels still evoke nostalgia in alumni who spent countless hours toiling inside those metal walls. 

More than 140 of the two-person lockable carrels have been removed from ­Firestone as part of the library’s 10-year renovation. Eventually all of the original carrels — there were about 500 when the building opened in 1948 — will be replaced by 500 single-person open wooden carrels with modern lighting and wireless connections.

The new carrels, which will be distributed throughout the building, will not lock or be assigned. Instead, students will be assigned lockable storage units with shelf space comparable to the old carrels that are near the resources they need.

Library staff found in recent years that the carrels were not used enough to justify the “enormous real estate” they required, according to University Librarian Karin Trainer. Currently, 490 seniors and 231 grad students are registered for carrel space, which also includes rooms that hold up to seven people.

A faculty steering committee recommended eliminating Firestone’s carrels, which, if kept, would have needed individual smoke detectors and sprinkler heads to conform to modern building codes. 

“They [the locked carrels] just are not appealing to contemporary students,” Trainer said, although alumni frequently have “a sentimental attachment and want to see their carrel” while back for Reunions. 

There are no plans to remove ­carrels from any other campus libraries, all of which have some type of individual study space.

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22 Responses to After six decades of thesis use, Firestone removing metal carrels

Jack Siggins '60 Says:

2012-02-06 15:10:30

Sorry to see the carrels disappear. They were originally designed for two people to share. I convinced a classmate who didn't want to use it to sign up as my partner, so I had it all to myself. Mine had a fan to keep it cool and was isolated enough so that I had few distractions (except an occasional classmate who would entertain his girl friend in his carrel with the lights out and door locked). Very likely, I would not have turned in my senior thesis on time without the solitude of my carrel to encourage hard work. Paid off, too: I got an "A" on my thesis. Could one be retained as a reminder of that special time and place?

John F. Heimerdinger '54 Says:

2012-02-06 16:16:34

What will happen to the dedication plaques? My father, Frederick M. Heimerdinger '17, donated a carrel when Firestone was being built.

Bob Fuller '61 Says:

2012-02-06 16:23:54

The guy who had the carrel across from mine (name withheld to protect the guilty) had industrial strength BO. He was also flatulent. Every time he opened his carrel it was all I could do to keep from gagging. I kept some Air-Wick (anybody remember that?) in my carrel, but it wasn't enough to dispel his emanations.

June Fletcher '73 Says:

2012-02-06 17:21:36

It took strength of will to descend to the lightless bowels of Firestone and type away in a cold, dented metal carrel. (But sometimes in the spring when the dorms had stereo wars, it was the only place to catch some ZZZs.) And the carrel's lack of charm did discipline me to work hard and efficiently, so I could escape!

William Haynes '50 Says:

2012-02-06 17:30:57

A quiet place to work if one has noisy roommates.

Margaret Benefiel '75 Says:

2012-02-06 17:45:52

I wrote notes on many a notecard in my carrel, reading through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books in that dim, uncomfortable space. It felt a bit monastic as I worked on my thesis on American religious history.

John LaGrua '52 Says:

2012-02-07 09:26:11

Luxury of solitude. Could not have done my thesis without retreating to it during Christmas break. It softened the feeling of lonely work in a deserted campus.

Karn Griffen '57 Says:

2012-02-07 09:51:44

Many fond memories. Remember many conversations with the grad student right opposite me named Bill Bowen.

Katharine Norris '86 Says:

2012-02-07 09:55:18

Oh no! They were cramped and a bit creepy, but the desk worked very well for impromptu naps. Whatever would I have done without it?! Truly the end of an era.

Arvin Anderson '59 Says:

2012-02-07 09:57:01

Wasn't privileged to be assigned one -- in the chemistry department.

Jessica Rojakovick '03 Says:

2012-02-07 13:18:05

Sad to see them go! Lots of happy (if perhaps stressful) memories!

James Mister '09 Says:

2012-02-08 09:14:18

They were a bit dank, but one could make them cozy little work spaces -- I did so with the requisite office supplies, a small lamp, a bulletin board, postcards, and (of course) snacks! Since so few people used their carrel, I always had quiet study time ... a little sad to see them go.

Dora Chomiak '91 s'91 Says:

2012-02-09 09:30:45

Is anyone auctioning them off? Could be an interesting component of an open office.

Linda Francis Knights '77 Says:

2012-02-09 09:35:24

I don't know if the four-person carrels in Firestone were officially metal. If not, perhaps mine will remain. Excellent study space (nearly offices!), though we did not have typewriters there - never mind something called laptops -- or (cell) phones. Probably all for the best! However, carrelmates rivaled roommates, and I recall an onsite wine and cheese celebration after we all turned in our theses! Dare I submit this recollection?!

Jim Marketos '76 Says:

2012-02-10 10:02:13

Learning that Firestone's metal carrels will be removed brings back fond memories of senior year and C-11-J2, the carrel I shared with classmate and fellow medieval studies major Charlene Cosman. Ours was a hospitable carrel. Visitors were treated to sherry, served from a bottle hidden behind Vol. IV of the Cambridge Medieval History. Serving glasses emerged from a filecard box. In the spring, our carrel celebrated the completion of theses by hosting a party. We and various friends sneaked food, drinks, ice, and an entire stereo system, piece by piece, past the lobby guard and down to C-floor. Those who remember how big the speakers, turntables, and amplifiers were in those pre-iPod days will appreciate the accomplishment. The night guard, won over with food, drink, and music, indulged us well past closing time.

Brooks Wrampelmeier '56 Says:

2012-02-10 16:22:17

My best memory of the carrels is that the three of us who used the same given name -- Brooks Jones, Brooks Fenno, and Brooks Wrampelmeier -- were all assigned to the same short row of carrels. If someone came calling for "Brooks," three heads might pop out.

W. Barksdale Maynard '88 Says:

2012-02-28 15:24:34

In a letter to the head of the library I have made a plea that two or three of the carrels be kept intact, with their furniture, for historical reasons. I discuss the carrels at some length in my new architectural history of the university, "Princeton: America's Campus." The idea of every student having a carrel goes back to the eighteenth-century design of Nassau Hall, where every room had individual study closets lit by a window. The Firestone carrels have a story to tell about Princeton's traditional commitment to the education of the individual. Historic preservation ought to be taken in mind during the renovation of Firestone Library. Designed nearly seventy years ago, it is an important building in its own right, showing the stamp of the functional, austere World War Two mentality yet with many Moderne touches. I give it an entire chapter in my book.

Robert G. McHugh '50 Says:

2012-03-27 16:06:49

Sorry to see this great asset to Firestone pass away. Dropping out of Theatre Intime's production of "King Lear" ( I was to play Kent to Mo Kinnan's Lear), I decided to spend my evening hours in my beautiful small carrel on the top floor of Firestone, writing my thesis, "Existentialism and Soren Kierkegaard." I was stunned a few weeks later when my roommate, Phil Minor, handed me a note from the philosophy department advising me that my thesis had been selected for the McCosh Prize. I'm sure Will Shakespeare would have been proud of my decision.

Ted Mack '55 Says:

2012-04-05 09:40:17

The Thesis Blues! In the fall of 1954, seniors were assigned a carrel and advised to select a "compatible" carrel mate. Thence began the vividly remembered but thankfully once-in-a-lifetime experience of the undersigned, son of Buddy Mack '31, and David Gaylord White, son of Cleve White '23. Our carrel was to be found on C Floor, deep in the tomblike depths of Firestone Library. With stale air and flickering fluorescent lighting, the atmosphere was a poor draw against the above-ground brisk, bright, exciting Princeton community. Nevertheless, with grim determination, on an October day David and I descended into the bowels of Firestone to find our tiny carrel. I came laden with thesis-writing equipment, including Smith-Corona typewriter, spiral-bound notebooks, index cards with wooden box, Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, Roget's Collegiate Thesarus, pencils, and two $10 newly invented ballpoint pens (which leaked indelible ink!). David came empty-handed. Dear readers, please remember that 1954 was long before the creation of personal computers, the Internet, fax machines, and cellphones. The creation of a thesis was a daunting physical as well as mental grind! As I began to organize my equipment, David took a quick look around and exclaimed, "I'll be back soon!" Best intentions notwithstanding, soon was not-so-soon. And many weeks later on that ever-to-be-remembered Dec. 6, 1954, David appeared at our carrel laden with material and announced his daunting task of starting from scratch to create a thesis entitled "English Radicals and the French Revolution: A Study of Three Prominent Reformers - Horne Tooke, Thomas Hardy, and John Thewall." Now fast-forward to thesis-submission deadline: 4 p.m. April 20, 1955. David madly dashed from our carrel to present his creation to the history department with minutes to spare, never again to return to Firestone Library C Floor. And, for that matter, neither have I. Wonder what they ever did with our equipment and material? As a result of his struggle, David composed a song, "The Thesis Blues," still sung with gusto at any '55 get-together.

John B. Jessup '51 Says:

2012-04-30 10:14:55

As a frequent user of a carrel while composing my thesis on "The Consulship of Cicero," it was a home away from dorm. What will seniors henceforth do in lieu? I can see refurbishing, relocating, or restructuring, but elimination? Seems a bad idea. Consider: Like riding Niagara in some barrels / Is the thought of doing without those carrels. / They seemed to me as though apparel / We're all running about like squirrels. / We'll soon be singing Christmas carols / Before we end our quibbles and quarrels.

Steve Krodman '74 Says:

2012-05-01 09:42:40

As an engineer, I did not avail myself of the Firestone carrels, preferring instead to camp out in the E-Quad library. Nevertheless, I can certainly understand the nostalgic feelings the old carrels can summon amongst the students who toiled away in them. It's a perverse sort of nostalgia, to love something that many people associate with long, sweaty bouts of thesis writing, but, well, there you are. Universities - and their libraries - for better or worse, are changing. How can they not, in a time when technology and the ever-present Ars Electronica are ascendant? Except for a few kept as museum pieces, why should the fate of study carrels be any different from that of the pay telephone booth?

Carrie Staub Vomacka '02 Says:

2012-05-17 10:49:32

I too feel a sense of sadness at the passing of this era. The carrel experience was certainly yet another Princeton rite of passage that linked us with the long history of students that came before. My roommate and I shared a carrel deep on C-floor, and I will always remember the delirious late nights spent in that metal box working on my obscure history thesis and occasionally wandering the stacks to gather my thoughts and figure out who else was crazy enough to be there on a Saturday night. I will also never forget the headphones to my Sony Discman sending an electric shock over me if I accidentally touched both hands to metal (easy to do as you might imagine) to the hysterical delight of my carrel-mate. It's probably a good thing the new study rooms will be made of wood - though the days of Discmen are long gone.
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