Coffee shops, libraries and home: Defending our go-to study spots

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Whether we’re settling in at our favorite coffee shops, pouring over our work at one of UC Berkeley’s many libraries or cozying up at home, we know how (and where) we like to study best. Not everyone can agree on the superior spot, but we can make solid cases for each of them.

Wake up and smell the coffee

More often than not, I wake up in a state of panic. At this point, I’ve generally been dreaming about failing for six hours now, and at the apex of my dream, I awake with a shudder, driven out of sleep by the desire to do whatever I need to to stop my dream from becoming a reality.

On these days, studying from home is just not going to cut it. Home is a place of luxury, with naps and Netflix and roommates who come home with juicy gossip, and these things together make for a deadly trio of unproductivity. On days like this, I must leave.

At this point I’m faced with two choices. Do I go to a library, or do I go to a coffee shop? Nine times out of 10, I’ll choose the coffee shop — and here’s why.

First, there’s coffee. I know that seems obvious, but let me set the scene so you really understand. When I wake up, there are two ways my morning can go. First, I make a cup of coffee with the crappy Keurig cups I bought on Amazon that taste terrible but were also super cheap, drink it on the way to the library and immediately fall asleep upon arrival. Or, I can go to a coffee shop. I walk in, and instantly the smell of coffee wakes me up, and I quickly order a cup of my favorite coffee. That first sip is always the best. Hot and creamy, with just a hint of sweetness, that coffee almost immediately puts me in a good mood, ready to be productive for the rest of the day. I am now ready to work. It is at this point that I really begin to understand that the power of a coffee shop comes from its vibe.

Imagine you just walked into Moffitt Library. Right away, you know you aren’t going to find a seat. But, of course, you entertain the delusion of finding table space for a little while longer, and maybe you get lucky and find something. Who cares that the only available chair is that horrible blue one with the unnecessarily wide back, seemingly comfortable but actually anything but? You sit down and look around. What do you see? Next to you, there is a girl sitting with her head in her hands, staring anxiously at a Google Doc with four sentences on it. She glances at you briefly, as if to say, “Get out while you still can.”

You try to tune out you surroundings so you can work, but you can’t seem to tune out the group behind you, which has a computer science problem set due at midnight and seems to argue louder and louder as the deadline approaches. You’ve been in this library for 10 minutes, and already the tone has been set. Desperation is in the air, and it won’t be long before you feel it too.

Coffee shops set the vibe too, but in a dramatically different way. I am sitting in a coffee shop right now — to my right are two old men, drinking espressos and catching up on what I’m sure has been a very eventful week. In front of me, there’s a kid writing a paper, humming and bobbing his head gently to the breezy pop song playing. I take a sip of my coffee, feel the creativity in the air and a surge of inspiration. Whatever I have to do, it goes from seeming like an insurmountable obstacle to becoming a simple challenge. I think to myself — I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again. Thank God I’m in a coffee shop.

— Rhea Srivats

rebecca-gerneyAt home among the halls

When I stepped into Doe Library for the first time on my tour of Berkeley, it was love at first sight. From the aisles of long tables to the high ceilings and the huge windows sending golden streams of light down into the warm hall, I knew this is where I would study. But I was young and naive, and I had yet to experience the emotional, mental and physical rigor of UC Berkeley. I still thought that a pretty library could solve all of my problems.

As I enrolled in class and started my freshman year, I soon found that Berkeley was unlike anything I had expected. I found myself studying almost every day. Whether it was my readings for an English class or the astronomy homework I was trying to decipher, I had to study a lot to keep up with the fast pace here.  For me, that meant finding the perfect study spot. Forgetting my first perfect meeting with Doe Library in the spring, I experimented with the different study options on campus.  

Having a wonderfully Parisian, romantic notion of studying at a café, I hit the town ready to write my first college paper. One of my GSIs held office hours in Cafe Milano and the café was close to my dorm, so it was my first stop.  I sat down ready to research and write, I logged onto their internet, and — nothing. The chatter of other people around me distracted me, and the classical music playing throughout the café, though beautiful, clashed with the music playing in my ears. This would be the perfect spot to meet a friend and grab a bite to eat, but not to write my paper, it seemed.  So, I trekked onward.

I tried Caffe Strada, found a table — no chair — in the sun. I pulled it over to a bench and proceeded to do my astronomy homework. A gust of wind took my papers from my hands and spread them around the café.  I scrambled to pick them all up and quickly left — this spot wouldn’t do either. I tried café after café, but they all seemed just a little too active for the kind of studying I needed to do.  It was time to go home.

I settled into my desk in my dorm room, took out my laptop and immediately connected to the internet, with only my music playing in my ears. I opened my book to write, and my hallmate came screaming into my room, telling me stories I would never remember. Soon, all our friends were hanging out in our room, and I was too busy chatting and laughing and munching on snacks to remember the paper I was trying to write. I resolved to find a new spot.

Then, I remembered my first love. I packed up my things and all but ran the short way to Doe Library. I walked up the marble stairs and into the beautiful, silent oasis. I picked a table, spread out my books and listened. Complete quiet. I connected to the internet, no friends chatting in my ear, no unknown music threaded throughout. The lamps on the long tables came on as the sun went down, and soon the whole hall was warm and cozy, I felt like I was in “Harry Potter.” I was finished with my essay in no time.

Now, over a year later, as I prepare for an even more grueling dead week, I am comforted by  thoughts of snuggling up in Doe Library, drinking my (smuggled-in) coffee. I just couldn’t imagine studying anywhere else. Everyone has their own taste, their own conditions for what makes a good study space. But having spent more time in Doe Library than probably anywhere else on campus, my favorite is clear. I’m no longer naive, and I don’t think a pretty library can solve all my problems — but it sure is the best place to try.   

— Rebecca Gerny

Michelle ZhengSay no to Stacks, Starbucks and study groups

As the never-ending midterm season whirlwinds into finals week, I am inundated by the numerous study invites to Berkeley’s best libraries and cafés. But, for me, home is where my (study) heart is.

I remember when I was a dewy-eyed freshman who still valued course readings. I had a one-and-a-half hour block in between two classes. The spiraling stairs of Main Stacks had beckoned to me, insisting that it could transform me from a bawling newborn cub to a “real” UC Berkeley bear if I went to study in its knowledgeable, phone service-less depths. When I wandered through the floors for the first time, in awe of the rotating bookshelves, I was ready for my metamorphosis.

After I found a table to read at, I confidently pulled out a chair, only for its legs to screech loudly at me. Suddenly, the UC Berkeley hivemind honed into my position, every student instantly turning their heads to scowl at my shriveling frame. One more false move, and I knew Oski himself would come plunging through the ceiling to suplex me into the nearest university seal, where no amount of soft caresses of the 4.0 ball could heal.

I took this as my first and final warning, and I quickly made my leave.

I won’t even touch on the sardine cans that our libraries become (both visually and olfactorily)  when students flood into Athena’s sanctuary during dead week, desperately trying to cram a semester’s worth of information into a week’s worth of sleep-deprived review.

And while the seduction of coffee shops never fails to entice me, I find that, like finding true love, studying in Philz is very different in reality. While the smells are always heavenly, the tables are always too small, and at least five of the six tables are taken up by business-frat coffee chats and first-round interviews.

Plus, there are never. Enough. Outlets.

But back at my apartment, there are outlets galore. The ever-skyrocketing cost of living in Berkeley, however, means almost all of us live with at least one to three roommates. In a world where Cal always wins the Big Game, we would always get along and be able to perfectly communicate with our roomies. Sadly, we don’t live in that world, and frequently, roommates become distractions, whether it’s a simple quabble about replacing the toilet paper or a grand-slam existential crisis over a CS 170 project. Wouldn’t going to a library or a café promote a more focused study session?  

In this case, usually one of the following two scenarios happen. The first and most common: Most folks leave the apartment as they fall into the paradox of believing a library or café is quieter than apartments, giving me the luxury of an almost empty place to study. The second: My roommates don’t leave. In that case, I’d prefer to do a bit of exposure therapy and study under distractions in order to prepare myself for finals-week anxiety.

I do recognize that I have had the luxury of residing in apartments with decent internet connection and a relatively close proximity to campus. For many, a location change from their homes is incredibly beneficial to their study habits, but I myself am not that diligent. I feel accomplished simply for finding a study spot, and I will reward myself by taking a “study break,” ending up having to pull an all-nighter back home even though I sat down in a café at noon.

When I study at my apartment, I can remove myself from the pretension of a “new” atmosphere, thus foisting all the onus of initiating actual studying onto myself. We Bears also know that when the stress comes bubbling forth, sometimes you need to release your inner animalistic grunts — and sometimes even an ol’ howl here and there. And just like a free creature, I also wish to study sans the restrictive bonds of garments; I wouldn’t want to subject anyone to my pasty body without consent.

So, until Main Stack’s naked run becomes more widely acceptable as an everyday study tactic, I’ll stay in my own bear’s den.

— Michelle Zheng

Contact Rhea Srivats at [email protected]. Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected]. Contact Michelle Zheng at [email protected].