By Cameron Howard
Libraries have always been early and enthusiastic adopters of technology. But it’s easy to forget how the latest innovations can quickly come to seem outdated and quaint.
As we gear up for the renovation of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, we pause to remember a time not so long ago when the state-of-the-art in library science wasn’t digitized books and mobile apps, but dumbwaiters and pneumatic tubes.
Today, when you need a book from Perkins Library, you simply check the online catalog and head to the stacks to retrieve it. But if you were a Duke student in the 1940s and 1950s, you followed a very different procedure. First, you consulted the card catalog and wrote the call number on a slip of paper. Then you handed that to a staff member at the Circulation Desk (located at that time outside the Gothic Reading Room). The staff member put the slip of paper in a small metal canister with plastic or rubber ends, inserted the canister into a metal pneumatic tube, and pressed a button or foot pedal. Through the magic of compressed air, the canister then shot to the appropriate floor of the stacks, where a page would be waiting at the tube terminal. The page located your book and summoned an electric “booklift” or dumbwaiter. With the press of a button, the booklift would lower your book to a small door behind the Circulation Desk, where it finally found its way into your hands. Presto! What could be more modern and convenient?
Although the dumbwaiter shafts have long since been walled in and the pneumatic tube system hasn’t been used in over fifty years, some of the terminals and tubes can still be seen in the part of the library that is about to be renovated.
Pneumatic tubes had been in use since the nineteenth century in post offices, banks, stores, hotels, offices, and factories to transport messages, orders, money, and even small packages. Such systems could be extremely elaborate: about eighteen miles of tubes crisscrossed large department stores like Macy’s and Gimbels. The Lamson Engineering Company dominated the market. A Lamson sales pamphlet from 1930 boasts that their pneumatic tube systems are so ubiquitous in large retail stores that “no introduction to that class of service is necessary,” but that after years of experience and research, the company “can successfully adapt our service to any class of business that requires rapid and positive communication between two or more points.”
In 1948, Duke University was one such business. The main library on West Campus (then known simply as the General Library) was undergoing a major expansion that would effectively double its size. At that time, the library had closed stacks, which meant they were off-limits to most patrons. (Only faculty, graduate students, and some honors seniors were allowed to browse on their own.) Duke called on Lamson to install a tube system to help manage the flow of requests and materials between the original 1928 stacks, the newly constructed 1948 stacks, and the Circulation Desk. Some of Lamson’s tube terminals were ornately decorated with flower and vine motifs, but Duke had basic models with LAMSON stamped on the bend and a wire basket underneath the tube opening to catch the canisters.
While such a system was efficient and effective in Macy’s, it proved ill-suited to Duke. A lack of staff meant each page was assigned to at least two floors, which caused delays if a request arrived when the page was deep in the stacks or on his “other” floor (or in the bathroom, for that matter). Although Lamson manufactured “independent terminals” from which messages could be sent and received, the system in Duke’s library only went one way: from the Circulation Desk to the stacks. This meant that the pages could not communicate with the Circulation staff if they had questions, causing further delays. Eventually, it became clear that it was more efficient simply to keep the pages on duty at the Circulation Desk and send them upstairs with requests than to station them at the tube terminals. The tubes fell out of use by the late 1950s or early 1960s, though the stacks remained closed until the 1970s. Although library pneumatic tube systems were never common, and most fell out of use decades ago, Duke was not the only university to have one. The Bodleian Library at Oxford still used a pneumatic tube system up until 2010!
Some of the tubes, canisters, air compressors, and motors that powered the dumbwaiters and pneumatic tubes have been rediscovered as the library undergoes renovations. With the upcoming renovation, the pneumatic tube system will be removed as the old library stacks are completely reconfigured to provide better environmental controls and security for archival collections. But not everything will be scrapped. One of the original metal canisters is still kept in the Duke University Archives, a reminder of the not-so-distant past when knowledge moved at the speed of air.
Cameron Howard graduated from Duke in 2009 and from UW-Madison with a Masters in Film Studies in 2012. She now works as a writer in Durham and blogs at sallycooks.com.
Check out the Flickr slideshow below to see more photos of the pneumatic tubes, dumbwaiters, and historical technological infrastructure of the library.