by Oona Lundgren, Staff Writer, November 2021

As any tour guide can tell you with utmost conviction, the beautiful Putnam Library is the center of day-to-day student life at Nobles. With so many features and sections in which to socialize and study, the space is vital to community life. Yet, the library’s wealth of resources may not be quite as equally distributed as one might imagine. 

Many spaces of the library have been divvied up by grade level. These divisions are enforced by whispering among friends, advice from older siblings, or shared judgemental glances. The rules of where students can sit are unspoken, but age-old. Walking through the main entrance into the Reading Room, you can easily observe the clean divide between Class I to the right, and Class II to the left. Follow along the equal opportunity study counter facing Shattuck and find clusters of Class III populating the bookshelves by the printers—otherwise known as the stacks. (If at this point you are wondering what Nobles has done with all our beloved Class IVs, you wouldn’t be alone). Peer into the Quiet Room to find smatterings of students of all ages—more often than not, upperclassmen with an essay due next period and 300 words that won’t write themselves.

With upperclassmen claiming the most central, comfortable areas, the authority of older students is evident. “It’s probably a pretty accurate representation of the hierarchy of different grades at Nobles,” Drew Johnstone (Class II) said. Fear of ostracization from older students drives many underclassmen to steer clear of the more desirable spaces of the library. “I don’t want to embarrass myself like that,” Rory Taylor (Class IV) said. She added, “I’ve had older siblings warn me about the consequences.”

First is the obvious question—how did we get here? How were these unspoken social rules made and maintained? Many students in upper grades attribute their adherence to following the path of graduating classes that came before them. A natural transition through the library spaces occurs. “Once the seniors [of 2019] graduated, many of us [in the Class of 2022] moved into the other side of the reading room, and seniors and juniors hung out on the other side,” Lexi Downing (Class I) said. 

A separation of grades in the library can be traced back to the days of the old library before Putnam was built in 2018. “There was actually a much stronger [divide] in the old library. There was a very specific area where each grade would sit, and nowhere else,” Co-Director of Putnam Library Talya Sokoll said. This year’s seniors would have been eighth-graders at that time, perhaps still retaining the imprint of that more strict arrangement.

Some students believe this path of succession isn’t necessarily a net negative, but rather a predictable phenomenon. “It’s the result of friend groups being in different classes. I don’t think the library seating has any particular effect except to reinforce those groups,” Colin Levine (Class III) said. High school is inevitably separated by grade, and the library is a representative sample. “I think most underclassmen understand that is the seniors and juniors space,” Hadley Laughlin (Class IV) said. She added, “We know when we’re seniors we wouldn’t want freshmen there. We tend to hang out in the freshman alcoves, and we accept that.” 

However, this school year has brought with it new norms for library sections. After a nearly yearlong separation of the upper and lower grades due to COVID-19, the initial demonstration of upperclassmen’s rights was upended. “This year, with everybody back together… a lot of last years’ eighth-graders and freshmen have not experienced the way the library used to work,” Downing said. Last year, the current sophomores could claim territory without fear of older students’ wrath. Middle schoolers ran rampant. Come fall, some of that intermingling has most certainly spilled over. Sokoll observed that those who use certain spaces of the library are determined more by type of work rather than grade. “It depends what you’re looking for in the space. Now it’s more that kids sit based on what they want to do in the library,” they said. Could it be that the disconnected world of COVID-19-era Nobles brought students closer together?