Subliminal Library

Remembrance of things past: The binding's smell, the paper's feel are a scholar's madeleines.
Writer: 
October 1, 2006

I confess to not recalling book titles, authors, and sometimes which books I've read. Patrick Süskind calls this phenomenon "a great forgetting" in a brilliant essay, "Amnesia in Litteris: the books I have read (I think)," that appeared in Harper's a decade ago. His ecstasy at discovering a marvelous book in his personal library with intelligent comments in the margins gives way to a shock of recognition: "As I lower the pen to scribble my 'Very good!' in the margins, I find a 'Very good!' already written there ... in handwriting with which I am well acquainted, namely my own." I went one further: My own marginalia in a book I was rereading for class was so abstruse that I could not make sense of it. How easy it is to forget content, yet, oddly, retain a flash of color from the binding, the feel of the paper--thick stock or gossamer tissue.

Like a cherished volume, a library and, for me, especially Perkins, retains something--in the air, to the touch--that preserves the sweat of past scholars and the dream work of students.

Hands-on learning: card catalogue, once typed and compiled one entry at a time, has given way to  less tactile electronic-tracking systems

Hands-on learning: card catalogue, once typed and compiled one entry at a time, has given way to less tactile electronic-tracking systems. Duke University Archives

Until recently, I was oblivious to the way Perkins has worked on me, on my subconscious, during the many years I have known it: as an undergraduate, from 1961 to 1965, and as a professor of French since 1980. As long as I have attended classes and worked in the Language Center, a wing of Perkins, I, metonym for my building, have felt joined at the hip to the library.

All through last year, construction was rampant at Duke. The deafening noise was happening around me, but I pretended not to notice. I had classes to teach and students to advise. I was in survivor mode. One day I started paying attention. The new library building, Bostock, attached to the other side of Perkins, sprang up as if overnight. I collided one too many times with a plywood wall when I tried, out of years of habit, to drop into Perkins on the way to my office. The entire first-floor lobby was being renovated as an "information commons." (It reopened in August.) Books that have fallen out of fashion were being quietly removed from Perkins to the annex, a legendary storage facility whose location is unknown to the uninitiated. The last straw was learning that the 1948 "levels," for which I have a special affection, will be permanently off-limits to the public in a couple of years. I'm in a panic.

It's time for me to bear witness to the changes occurring in Perkins and ultimately in my own building, for the imperceptible and dramatic effects of these changes, positive and negative, may well be shaping our future knowledge and culture. No longer in denial, I decide to revisit the layers of Perkins, new and old. Along the way, a sensual and, often, intensely personal geography forms around me.

To orient my tour of the library labyrinth (a synthesis composed of many visits), I stand facing the Language Center, still very much a part of Perkins. To the right, a hundred yards down a flagstone path, Bostock rises, connected by arches and bridges to the only exterior part of Perkins that has been rebuilt. To the left are the glass front doors of the 1968 Perkins, where the floors above the lobby still house the library's main stacks. The oldest wall, the one with the bas-relief shields above the windows, extends farther left as it descends in time from 1948 to 1930, ending at the 1928 tower, icon of the, then, new campus. That corner of Perkins established the library's authority on the Chapel quad.

The Bostock building both stands out and fits in. The stone on its façade is almost indistinguishable from the stone of the Old Chemistry building to which it appears to be joined. I walk down the path and turn into the first floor of Bostock, a large intellectual food-court--Current Periodicals, Circulation, Reserves, computer clusters everywhere, comfy chairs (in two designs). The spongy carpet sucks up the sound of my footsteps. I admire the convenient placement of the bathrooms beside the elevators (before, you went on a frantic search to the far ends of the 1968 stacks) and step into the elevator. I ride in almost preternatural quiet to the third floor so I can appreciate the Carpenter Reading Room, Bostock's jewel, flooded with light from tall windows. Students are sitting in the sunlight with their legs tucked under them, staring at their laptops. It feels safe here, I say to myself.

Standing in the middle of the Carpenter Room, I gaze across the way to the new Perkins façade, where a brick tower exposes its stark black flights of stairs through a series of glass walls. This architectural feature overtakes the other gray stone towers and turrets of the library, equal or smaller in height. But the old 1928 tower rises a floor higher (five floors) and can rest assured in its ancestral superiority.

I'm ready to move on from the new Bostock and pass through the new edge of Perkins so I can reclaim familiar territory. The bridge on the third floor leads me up a slight incline. There's something romantic about this bridge, as if I am crossing a canal in Venice. On the third floor of Perkins, I take a turn left into the Tower Reading Room. Beyond the tables and Duke-blue easy chairs, I find a fillip of serendipity that brings postmodern and old Duke together more authentically than carefully matched gray stones. A kindred soul has wedged a chair, now empty, into a small turret space where he or she was, for all practical purposes, secluded, yet able to watch the passersby flowing below. (As a child, I fantasized about reading in the widow's walk of an old house on the pirate-haunted Carolina coast.)

White water: Evans-Wall, in dark helmet, piloting adventure-seekers through Pillow Rock rapids on upper Gauley River in West Virginia

Enduring institution: from the dark netherworld of musty stacks to the plump comfort of new reading rooms, Orr's paean to Perkins takes in the old and the new. Jon Gardiner

Although I have never before disparaged the monster, the Perkins of 1968 was cramped, chaotic, cock-eyed and discombobulated, and, worse, not disability-friendly. The pamphlet recording The Dedication of the William R. Perkins Library heralded it as a great new research library, just as we are now heralding the design of Bostock. This sentence from the pamphlet measures the distance: "The idea that the application of the computer for library purposes will save enormous sums of money--although wholly unrealistic--dies hard at the budget table." An aspect of Bostock and our new Perkins will be similarly outmoded before we know it.

There were good times in the Perkins of 1968 to 2005. The main glass doors opened onto Circulation and Reference. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, we would consult the card catalogue, scribble down the call number, and go searching in the upstairs stacks. After 1990, we began heading to the online catalogue and databases. The card catalogue, which, hippopotamic, took up the back of the lobby, was already a throwback to a primitive age. During its former reign as the beehive of the library, we'd say, "Excuse me," as we tried to heave a long narrow drawer from under someone who was standing in place consulting cards.

The catalogue rose to its heights from humble beginnings. In 1913 at Trinity College, the librarian, then always a faculty member, brought his typewriter from home and balanced it on a chair to bring it to the right height for a student (of course) to start the humble revolution: Cards would no longer be written out by hand. Recently, Ashley Jackson, librarian and Perkins' building manager, broke the sad news to me: "The old card catalogues are gone--the cards recycled and the wooden cases to surplus."

Fortunately, Perkins' floors two through four have survived and will supposedly continue as they have been, from 1968 on. I like strolling down the straight corridors under the yellowish fluorescent lights in this island of reprieve among so much commotion. I run my hands over Balzac, rows of him. My fingers play across the hard bindings and smooth edges of paper as if across piano keys. Balzac seems to go on forever.

From the 1968 stacks, I climb up a half-floor and cross over into the 1948 stacks. An orderly and lit library gives way to a dark netherworld with angles, inner stairwells, and what appear to be useless air vents poking out from the low ceiling. The 1968 Perkins was ridiculed because it didn't line up with 1948 (a lesson in the discontinuity of time?), but the "levels" have always induced the desire for exploration.

Sometimes my search for a book led me, with the help of an arrow drawn on a plain sheet of white paper, to a small, secret room attached to the level (all levels but F) behind a gray door. Now these rooms provide storage for rare books and are locked. I peek into the narrow, vertical window, covered with wire mesh, like an opening through which inmates might exchange glances with a visitor. The lugubrious metal desks that line the sides of the levels are the equivalent of the open carrels at Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, where I hunkered down for hours as a graduate student. Duke's wood and metal chairs are as hard and cold as Yale's. Threading my way past Perkins' carrels, I penetrate back to the juvenile books (level D, accessible from inside only through level C). The space closes in on me until I feel nervous and alone.

The bright lights and lovely reading rooms of Bostock are revising our idea of a library, making it uplifting, dazzling, and cozy--all good. Students are flocking back in droves. There were never so many amenities in which to read and research data comfortably. But the old Perkins! What it lacked in dazzle and plush, it made up for with things ancient, exotic, magical, disturbing, even spooky. During the ice storm of December 2002, off-campus students without electricity in their apartments found refuge in Perkins, sleeping wherever they could. Most likely they had an eerie sense that what our juvenile books told us is true: Like toys, books come alive at night, converse, argue, and party.

What I'll miss most about the 1948 levels is the smell of book perfume. I breathe in that combination of dust, mustiness, mold, and old leather and imagine the great private European, Arabic, or Chinese libraries. A bearded scholar in a saffron robe reads from a collection of scrolls to students who sit on plush pillows and inhale the incense. I can't stay long: I've developed a scholar's allergy to dust. Where will future students be overcome by this whiff of centuries of libraries?

Rooting around in the levels, I realize that they are my youth, my undergraduate career at Duke. Once I had a report due for Professor Anne Scott's history class the next morning and discovered, to my horror, nothing in the place where my call number told me the book should be. Its neighbors had collapsed in on the void of the missing volume.

Out of the stacks, onto the populated second floor, which opened in 1930 and is still in use, I encounter a more profound, and disorienting, version of Süskind's amnesia. I remember the recent Perk cafè, now the Karl and Mary Ellen von der Heyden Pavilion; I recall, before the cafè, the small rooms I used in 1980 as a new faculty member to show videos. But I cannot for the life of me break through this succession of images to the one I'm looking for, from my undergraduate years. My memory whiteout accompanies the images now receding around me, oblivion already lurking here.

My scholarly training asserts itself, and I consult Bill King ('61, A.M. '63, Ph.D. '70), who was university archivist for thirty years. He meets me on the second floor. "In the early 1960s," he says, pushing up his aviator-style glasses with an index finger, "you checked out your books at the Circulation Desk that stretched over most of the second-floor Perkins area."

"What?" I said.

I must have come here a thousand times in a pleated skirt and ironed (!) Oxford cotton blouse. "The Circulation Desk was across from the Gothic Reading Room," King says, pointing to the famous study area of Perkins. I peer inside the Reading Room, which will also survive the library transformations. Excited, I think I remember back to little lights twinkling at each seat down the long tables. The bulbs were sheltered in opaque, dark-green, horizontal cylinders. Now, blue lamps, sparse but translucent. (Perhaps my twinkling lights are a false memory, I think, an overlay of the Bibliothëque historique de la ville de Paris, housed in a grand sixteenth-century mansion, where I once did work for a book. Every day for months I marched down to the reading room, past the old men in tattered coats and the impeccably dressed scholars of younger ages, to take my numbered place. I shivered as I resurrected with my magnifying glass the hidden words from 1867 that Michelet, arguably the greatest French historian, struck out of his manuscript with his freshly sharpened quill pen.)

Vantage point: Perkins library from West Union building

Vantage point: Perkins library from West Union building
Duke University Archives

Discouraged, I take the stairs down to the exit. I am hyper-vigilant and watch where I place my feet ... with no logical reason for it. A perfectly safe rubber mat runs down the stairs. My feet walk down stone stairs worn away in the middle to a smooth curve. A Proustian frisson shoots through me. At some point there had been no rubber mat. I had rushed up and down these stairs to the Circulation Desk, contributing to the wear. I am Marcel from In Search of Lost Time, an older man stepping on the uneven paving stones in a Paris courtyard that transport him back many years to Venice. The happiness of these rare, involuntary memories overtakes him and, now, me.

Finally completing my space-time travel, I emerge outside and gaze up to pay homage to the library's 1928 tower. (I crane to see the bas-relief caricatures of erudite scholar and eager student.) This original Perkins tower reminds me of the medieval tower hooked onto the bizarre castle in Victor Hugo's novel '93 (referring to 1793, the height of Revolutionary Terror). That tower, an edifice of hulking stone, casts a shadow over the elegant seventeenth-century addition, whose centerpiece is a long second-floor library with windows. In the middle of the room, elevated on a stand, is a priceless tome on the life of St. Bartholomew. Near the end of the novel, three urchins rip the book apart in play as the library is set on fire by fleeing royalists. The youngest child, an angelic blonde girl, claps and joins in as they laugh at massacring the "saint's life," reducing him to bits. The children represent the new generation--innocent, heedless--that destroys the knowledge of their elders. Victor Hugo does not judge them. Their act is natural in a long line of historical, if not daily, repetitions.

Each stage (the "new") that appears sophisticated, cutting edge, is undermined, displaced, replaced, or even eradicated by the next. Clues from the past remain, ephemeral in sensations or hidden away (the annex, level D, stone stairs under a mat). Knowledge, like memory, does not peel away in clean onion layers down to a source. When we gain, we lose, and vice versa. The theme of burning books and libraries has long captured the imagination, Alexandria being the most famous. In the rise and fall of civilizations, a strong social unconscious seems to be working in the defense and destruction of libraries, each action as ferocious as the other.

Perkins is the site of both forces at once: self-mutilating and rejuvenating. Our Language Center is slated to be extracted and moved to Central Campus near the Nasher Museum of Art, along with Linguistics and Asian and African Languages and Literatures. Perkins administrators are the aggressors; they will take over our building after it has been gutted and remodeled. I have no illusions. They will no more think of us than we have the law school that occupied our building many decades ago.

However, I do nurture a fantasy, drawn from Rabelais, that some day--2030, 2060--words frozen in the past (ciao, efharisto,  ) will suddenly thaw, and the echoes of foreign words will drift out of the windows of the old Language Center into the Perk cafè to speak to the students sipping drinks far "cooler" (no longer an "in" word) than lattes.