Riddles in Stone: The Curious Symbolism of Duke’s Library Shields

By Gwen Hawkes

Bustling among the Gothic archways of Duke’s West Campus, many students never realize that the walls around them are full of hidden symbolism. When the campus was built between 1927 and 1932, a crew of stone carvers employed by John Donnelly, Inc., of New York was commissioned to create the decorative flourishes, stately emblems, and sneering gargoyles that bedeck the university’s buildings and rooftops. Unfortunately, little else is known about the men responsible for these works of art. According to former University Archivist William E. King, it is thought that many of the workers were Irish craftsmen, drawn to America by the promise of work, only to return home upon its completion. (A few stayed in Durham for the rest of their lives.)

A sampling of the stone shields carved on the front of Rubenstein Library. Click on the image to see more on our Flickr site.

The larger mystery surrounding Duke’s stonework is the meaning of the decorations and symbols themselves— particularly those engraved on the recently renamed David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Beneath the windows of the Gothic Reading Room, the front of the library bears twenty-eight stone shields inscribed with various symbols. Because the sculptural designs were left up to the stone carvers themselves, the meaning of these shields has been, for many years, a mystery. The shields were further obscured by several holly trees, effectively blocking them from view, until the trees were removed this summer as part of the library renovation.

University comptroller Frank C. Brown, onetime chair of the English department and founder of the North Carolina Folklore Society, was one of the central figures who oversaw the construction of West Campus. In 1931, Brown contacted the Horace Trumbauer architectural firm in an attempt to discover the significance of the campus carvings. In particular, there was “a demand for an explanation of the various insignia in the Library,” Brown wrote, “because interest in these things increases with the years.” Regrettably, Brown’s letter apparently went unanswered, leaving us to decipher the mystery ourselves.

William Blackburn, legendary professor of English and creative writing at Duke, briefly mentions in his Architecture of Duke University (1946) that the shields on the library represent the various arts and sciences. However after much symbolic detective work, it seems this may be an oversimplification. The shield carvings, which range from the obvious (an open book) to the enigmatic (two rabbits supporting a globe on muscular shoulders) make use of a range of symbolic traditions, from Greek and Roman mythology to Masonic conventions.

The stone carvers who designed the library’s shields left no record of what they are supposed to symbolize. A case in point is this emblem of a rabbit and scroll underneath the sun. What could it mean?

Several of the emblems correspond with academic and intellectual endeavors: a lyre to represent poetry, a pair of scales for law or justice, a painter’s palette and brush denoting the visual arts. But most have more subtle meanings. A beehive perhaps represents diligence and industry. A winged hourglass warns against the rapid passage of time and shortness of human life. The lamp of knowledge burns brightly to symbolize enlightenment and education. Despite our best guesses, some of the shields remain stubbornly shrouded in secrecy, to the continuing puzzlement and delight of the viewer. However, each relays some snippet of wisdom to the stream of students racing along beneath them.

Gwen Hawkes (T’16) is an English major and Library Communications Assistant at Duke.

Cracking the Code


Visit our Flickr site to find a full gallery of the library’s stone shields and our best educated guesses about their meanings. A few of the images defied decoding. Their meaning remains tantalizingly elusive. If you can fill in the missing pieces, or correct our interpretations, let us know! Send your brilliant insights, wild conjectures, and learned annotations to Aaron Welborn, editor, at aaron.welborn@duke.edu. We’ll publish the most persuasive contributions as an update in the next issue of the magazine.

Gamble Photos Reveal a China Seldom Seen

Smoking boy at congee (porridge) distribution, 1917-1919. Click on the image to the see the digitized version on our website.
Smoking boy at congee (porridge) distribution, 1917-1919. Click on the image to the see the digitized version on our website.

Sometimes the most vivid historical moments are captured by accidental historians. Such is the case with Sidney Gamble, Princeton sociologist, China scholar, and amateur photographer whose deep love for Chinese culture helped to preserve an important moment in that country’s history. His photography is currently being shown as a travelling exhibit, Beijing Through Sidney Gamble’s Camera, jointly presented by the Capital Library of China and Duke University Libraries.

Gamble made several trips to China in the years 1908- 1932 and spent much of that time taking pictures of what he saw. Photographs of early twentieth-century China are relatively rare, owing to decades of political instability, war, and social upheaval. Entire archives were casualties of internal and external conflicts. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, many Chinese families were pressured to destroy their own personal photos. The result was an inestimable loss to the historical record.

But Gamble’s images remained safely preserved when he returned home to the United States. His extensive photographic collection contains more than 5,000 nitrate negatives—all of which were acquired by the Duke University Libraries in 2006.

Funeral procession of Sun Yat-Sen, 1925. Click on the image to see the digitized version on our website.
Funeral procession of Sun Yat-Sen, 1925. Click on the image to see the digitized version on our website.

Beijing Through Sidney Gamble’s Camera provides visitors with a glimpse of China in the early decades of the twentieth century, as its inhabitants adapted to a continually modernizing way of life. Gamble also captured noteworthy occasions in Chinese history, such as Sun Yat-sen’s funeral, the May Fourth Movement, and the Thanksgiving Celebration following the end of World War I.

Luo Zhou, Chinese Studies Librarian at Duke and one of the curators of the show, explained, “As a sociologist, humanist and missionary, Gamble documented Chinese life and culture in a time when China was in turmoil. These carefully designed snapshots provide a great source to look into real life and real people in those turbulent years.”

The exhibit will travel to four destinations in China, beginning at the Capital Library in Beijing in November, then heading to Renmin University Museum until December, the Beijing University Library in March, and the New Culture Movement Museum from April through May. Eventually, the photos will make their way to their final destination, Duke Kunshan University, where they will remain.

Sidney Gamble in chair, 1917-1919. Click on the image to see the digitized version on our website.
Sidney Gamble in chair, 1917-1919. Click on the image to see the digitized version on our website.

Reflections on Thirty Years at Duke

By Deborah Jakubs

I didn’t mean to stay this long. I started my first job at Duke on September 1, 1983, as a “general bibliographer.” I had never lived anywhere longer than ten years, and even that was punctuated by a lengthy research trip outside the U.S. That was thirty Septembers ago. Hardly anyone around here even uses the word bibliographer anymore.

It’s not that I haven’t had other opportunities. But Duke’s energy and entrepreneurial spirit exert a strong pull. So does the fact that Duke’s Libraries are so widely appreciated as the intellectual center of the university, critical to the academic success of students and welcomed as partners in so many scholarly initiatives.

Deborah Jakubs (center) with the library Executive Group and Rubenstein Library renovation team, summer 2013.
Deborah Jakubs (center) with the library Executive Group and Rubenstein Library renovation team, summer 2013.

It is not like this everywhere. My colleagues at other libraries around the country often remind me of that. Nowhere else have I seen a staff so talented and agile, or a university administration so supportive, or a broader community of library friends so generous. We say it all the time, but it bears repeating: Duke truly is a special place.

Another thing I love about our Libraries: they’re always changing. Change has been a constant these last thirty years. For example, when I started working here, the books and journals in the library weren’t selected by librarians themselves, but by faculty “library reps.” None of our books had ever been digitized, because there was no such thing as digitization. No one came to us for advice on intellectual property or data management, let alone multimedia editing and production. Not only do we cover more subject areas now, we also cover more physical area. Back then, you had to come to the library if you wanted our help. Now librarians offer virtual “chat” consultations practically around the clock, and hold office hours in departments and schools. We come to you.

Jakubs (right), then Head of International and Area Studies, at a library reception in 1995. Pictured with Richard Ekman (left), Secretary of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Peter Lange (center), then Vice Provost for Academic and International Affairs at Duke.
Jakubs (right), then Head of International and Area Studies, at a library reception in 1995. Pictured with Richard Ekman (left), Secretary of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Peter Lange (center), then Vice Provost for Academic and International Affairs at Duke.

Technology has been driving and motivating much of this change. The role of the research library has become more complex, requiring different skills and presenting new responsibilities. We are still the place you go to check out books (print circulation continues at a good clip), but we are so much more than we used to be. We are open around the clock five days a week, and 24/7 during reading periods and exams. We partner with students, faculty, and departments on interdisciplinary initiatives. We design and demonstrate ways to access, preserve, and visualize mountains of complex data. We manage websites, hundreds of databases, and thousands upon thousands of e-books. We curate, archive, and digitize our distinctive special collections, enabling us to share them with researchers far beyond Duke’s campus. We still help people find what they need—but we do it in ways unimaginable thirty years ago.

The debut of the first electronic library catalog at Duke, 1980s.
The debut of the first electronic library catalog at Duke, 1980s.

Yes, I still remember the card catalog. I am in good company, with other library and faculty long-timers (not to say old-timers!). I may have been in one institution for thirty years, but my job has often changed and has always challenged me. Duke has given me wonderful opportunities to keep learning, experimenting, teaching, sharing, and growing. I didn’t mean to stay this long, but I am awfully glad I did.

Deborah Jakubs is the Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian and Vice Provost for Library Affairs at Duke.


Outrageous Ambitions: How a One-Room Schoolhouse Became a Research University

Historical postcard, Duke East Campus, Woman’s College. Duke University Archives. Click on the image to visit the online version of the exhibit.

Today’s Duke University, a premier research institution with a global reputation, came from the humblest of beginnings: a tiny schoolhouse in Randolph County, North Carolina. From there the organization shifted through many manifestations, ultimately transforming from Brown’s Schoolhouse into Duke University.

A new exhibit on display in Perkins Library traces the history of Duke University as it evolved and grew over the past 175 years. The exhibit showcases a selection of events that were fundamental to the creation of the University, and focuses on several key themes: foundations, academics, student life, student activism, athletics, presidents, the Duke family, women at Duke, and the architecture of campus.

The materials for the exhibit, which include photographs, documents, ephemera, and other objects, were drawn from the Duke University Libraries University Archives and vibrantly illustrate the history of the school. Viewers can further explore Duke history by visiting an online interactive timeline, which highlights other key moments in Duke’s past.

Coach K Ball
Signed ball from Duke’s first men’s basketball National Championship, 1991. Click on the image to see the online version of the exhibit.

The title of the exhibit, Outrageous Ambitions, references a speech made by former University President Terry Sanford, in which he expounds on the seemingly impossible ambition that was responsible for creating Duke University. The exhibit seeks not only to remember the incredible aspirations that have supported Duke in the past, but also to inspire the continuing work of Duke students, faculty, staff, and alumni as they craft their own extravagant ambitions.

The exhibit was curated by Maureen McCormick Harlow, 175th Anniversary Intern in University Archives, and Valerie Gillispie, University Archivist.

Visit the exhibit website and explore the interactive timeline of Duke history to find out more!

Sweet Nothings: Love Letters from the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

By Aaron Welborn

While we were thinking about the topic of “Love in the Library,” we consulted the collections of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library for a little historical inspiration—and discovered some real gems. Here’s a selection of honeyed words from the archives.


Odessa Massey: “Remember I am thinking about you a lot”


A 2013 native of Wilson Mills, North Carolina, Clara Odessa Massey was an undergraduate at Duke from 1924 to 1928. Among her many extracurricular activities, Odessa (as she was known) had an active social and dating life. She received multiple reprimands from the Women’s Student Government Association for failing to report dates with men. Among the items preserved in her college scrapbook are numerous courtship letters, including one from a certain “Duck,” who writes: “I’ve just been out walking in the moonlight. The moon is so pretty. I’d give anything in world to have a date with you tonight, but it seems as though I can’t get one.” Odessa didn’t keep all of the letters she received (and she received a lot), but she often cut and pasted her correspondents’ closing lines and signatures in her scrapbook. Looking through the pages, one notices a trend: “Please remember that I really and truly love you,” “With heaping love,” “Remember I am thinking of you a lot,” “Lots of love,” and so on. 

Odessa Massey's scrapbook from her time as a student at Duke contains pages of professions of love, cut and pasted from letters sent by her many admirers. Duke University Archives.
Odessa Massey’s scrapbook from her time as a student at Duke contains pages of professions of love, cut and pasted from letters sent by her many admirers. Duke University Archives.
A courtship letter to Massey from a fellow student named "Duck," who writes, "I'd give anything in the world to have a date with you to-night."
A courtship letter to Massey from a fellow student named “Duck,” who writes, “I’d give anything in the world to have a date with you to-night.” Duke University Archives.



Isabelle Ingram: Advice for the Tongue-Tied


“There are many different kinds of letters to be mastered, but all agree that the love-letter—one that will express concisely, delicately, and in an acceptable manner the deepest impulses of the heart—is the most difficult and hazardous.” So says Isabelle Ingram in her preface to Love Letters: Containing the Etiquette of Introduction,Courtship and Proposals: Also a Large Number of New and Original Letters to Be Used as Models for Any Style of Love Letter (1925). The book contains advice for the lovesick correspondent, but it also provides a number of ready-made letters for various romantic situations, which tongue-tied paramours are invited to pass off as their own. To cite just one example: “You know, Lottie, we have always been the best of friends, and I don’t want it to be different now that I am away at college. Probably we are too young to make any definite promises, at least it would not be manly for me to bind you to any such, but I want you to know that from just consulting my own state of feeling, I belong to you, and shall always love you.”

Cover of Isabella Ingram's "Love Letters" (1925), a handbook for the enamored and tongue-tied correspondent.
Cover of Isabella Ingram’s “Love Letters” (1925), a handbook for the enamored correspondent who can’t think of anything original to say. Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture.


Can’t [Stop] Thinking of You [Stop]: Love on the Wire


A native of Greenwood, Mississippi, Ella Fountain Keesler Pratt (1914-2008) worked at Duke for almost thirty years. She was hired in 1956 to help develop an arts program for the Student Union, a task at which she excelled. She was responsible for bringing world-famous performers like Itzhak Perlman and Leontyne Price to campus. In time, she also became a vital member of the Durham arts scene and paved the way for the American Dance Festival’s relocation to Durham. In 1938, Ella married her sweetheart, Lanier “Lanny” W. Pratt, a graduate student at Duke who eventually went on to teach in the Classics department here. But during her courting days, Ella was the recipient of several sugar-coated missives delivered by Western Union—the text messages of their day—which are preserved in her papers in the Duke University Archives. 

Unsigned telegram to Ella Fountain Keesler [Pratt]. Duke University Archives.
Unsigned telegram to Ella Fountain Keesler [Pratt]. Duke University Archives.
Ella would eventually marry Lanier "Lanny" W. Pratt, a grad student who later taught Classics at Duke. Duke University Archives.
Ella would eventually marry Lanier “Lanny” W. Pratt, a grad student who later taught Classics at Duke. Duke University Archives.


Read More:


Love in the Library: True Tales of Romance by the Book

Love in the Library: True Tales of Romance by the Book

Valentine Card. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Valentine Card. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Surrounded by stories surreal and sublime,
I fell in love in the library once upon a time.

— Jimmy Buffett, “Love in the Library”

By Aaron Welborn

Maybe it’s the intimacy of hushed voices, or the mingling of public and private spheres, or just the feeling of mysterious possibility that comes from being surrounded by so many books and stories. Let’s face it—there’s something romantic about libraries.

Literature and film are full of evidence that in these temples of knowledge, more than just facts and fiction await the receptive soul. One only has to think of the New York Public Library scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s when Paul admits that he loves Holly Golightly. Or A. S. Byatt’s celebrated novel of archival and literary romance, Possession. Or the scene in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, when Belle is presented with a magnificent library as a demonstration of the Beast’s love. The list could go on.

Over the years, we’ve heard numerous stories of alumni who met, courted, or otherwise found each other in one of the libraries at Duke. These are just a few of their stories. We know there are many more out there. (If you have one and want to share, we hope to hear from you!) We offer them in support of the proposition that in this age of e-books, Wikipedia, and instant access to information, there’s nothing quite like a library for bringing like minds together, forever.


Steven and Nathalie Bressler

Neches 0547
Steven (T’07) and Nathalie (T’09) Bressler spent countless evenings on study dates in Perkins Library.

When Steven (T’07) was in sixth grade, he told his parents, “I want to learn the language of love.” It turned out to be a wise move.

Steven’s parents were both physicians, and they often worked with colleagues from around the world who spoke languages that sounded strange and exotic to an impressionable twelve-year-old. Steven longed to know what they were saying.

His parents signed up their young Romeo for French lessons. Later in high school, he added Spanish. Fast-forward to 2006, when Steven was a senior at Duke majoring in French and Spanish Cultural Studies, an independent major he designed. That fall, he was taking a seminar on the novel in French Canada, taught by Professor Paol Keineg. One day in class, the professor asked someone to read aloud a passage from a book they were discussing. Steven raised his hand, but so did a young sophomore named Nathalie Neches (T’09). The professor called on Steven, who read the passage “beautifully,” remembers Nathalie. Then Steven was asked to read another passage from the same book written in Spanish, which he also handled with ease.

Nathalie was taken aback. It wasn’t so much her classmate’s fluency that made an impression. It was the sight of Professor Keineg nodding with approval. “I was used to being at the top of my class,” Nathalie says.

She had always been a straight-A student. Because this was a small seminar—about eight people—the inevitable grading curve meant there wouldn’t be much room at the top. And here was this nonchalant senior, impressing the professor with his flawless pronunciation and jeopardizing her GPA. Something had to be done.

If Steven’s talent for languages revealed itself at an early age, Nathalie’s came by blood. Her parents were Russian and had moved the family all over the world. Her eldest sister was born in Russia, her older brother in Israel. Nathalie and another sister were born in California. She had cousins in Colombia whom the family would visit. She grew up speaking Russian, English, French, and Spanish around the house. She aced the AP French exam as a freshman in high school. Pas de problème.

The von der Heyden Pavilion, "a safe, neutral space where two people could talk and clear the air."
The von der Heyden Pavilion, “a safe, neutral space where two people could talk and clear the air.”

After that day in Professor Keineg’s class, Nathalie approached Steven and asked him if he could give her some pointers some time. It may have seemed like a flirtatious overture, but the way Nathalie remembers it, it was pure competitive instinct, a subtle gambit to gain academic advantage. The way Steven remembers it, the most attractive girl in the class was actually talking to him.

Eventually they started dating. Because it was Steven’s senior year, he spent a lot of time applying and interviewing for jobs. Meanwhile, Nathalie was hitting the books. If he wanted to spend any time with her, Steven realized he would have to join her in the library. The first floor of Perkins Library had just been renovated, and Nathalie’s study spot of choice was back behind the reference desk. It was the social part of the library, with lots of friends coming and going and plenty of welcome distractions. (That was the only year in college she ever got a B, Nathalie admits.)

She and Steven spent countless evenings there on study dates. Later that year, they broke it off. But the separation didn’t last. Steven wanted her back, and Nathalie agreed to meet him one day over coffee in the café in von der Heyden. It was one of the few places on campus open late, and there were lots of other people around—a safe, neutral space where two people could talk and clear the air. That first conversation went okay, so they met again. And again. Eventually, after umpteen cups of coffee, he won her back.

Steven graduated in 2007 and started working in investment banking and then private equity. Nathalie graduated in 2009 with a B.S. in Economics. She followed that with a law degree in at the University of Pennsylvania. The couple married in March of 2012 and moved to New York.

Steven is now in his second year of the MBA program at the Wharton School at Penn. Nathalie is an associate at a real estate law firm in New York. But the couple fondly remembers their library dates at Duke, and the way they gradually learned to speak the same language.


Michael and Elizabeth Schoenfeld

Elizabeth (T'84) and Mike (T'84) Schoenfeld
It was “love at second sight” for Elizabeth (T’84) and Mike (T’84) Schoenfeld.

As freshmen at Duke, Mike (T’84) and Elizabeth (T’84) both worked in the campus libraries. Mike reshelved books in Perkins. Elizabeth worked in the reserves section of Lilly Library on East Campus.

For Elizabeth, libraries always felt like home. Her mother was a librarian in their hometown of Purvis, Mississippi. In fact, she was the reason Purvis had a library to begin with. When Elizabeth was young, her mother applied to the state government for a grant to open a public library in their community. When the grant came through and the library was approved for construction, her mother enrolled in the University of Southern Mississippi and learned a master’s degree in library science so she could run it.

The library became Elizabeth’s gateway to a wider world. “The schools in Purvis were not exactly academically rigorous,” she says. It was largely by putting herself through a self-directed course of reading that she was able to get accepted at a school like Duke.

Mike also grew up around books. When he was young, he spent many weekends at Brooklyn Public Library’s children’s section in New York while his father was studying for an MBA at CUNY Baruch College. That turned into an early passion for reading. “I was the kind of kid who was always getting stars for reading the most books,” he says.

The first time Mike and Elizabeth met as sophomores in 1981, “we immediately hated each other,” Elizabeth remembers. They encountered each other at a Freewater Films screening of Private Benjamin, a comedy that appealed to Mike’s Long Island background but completely escaped Elizabeth’s Mississippi upbringing. On top of that, “he looked like he came right out of Saturday Night Fever,” recalls Elizabeth.

Duke students sitting on the quad, c. 1984. Duke University Archives.
Duke students sitting on the quad, c. 1984. Duke University Archives.

A few weeks later, Elizabeth was walking around the fourth floor of Perkins Library, looking for someone to talk to. In those days, the fourth floor was the public square of the library, the place to see and be seen. Mike was also there. When Elizabeth walked past, their eyes locked for a long moment. “And just like that, it was like a thunderbolt,” she said. “Love at second sight.”

She went to get a drink of water and several minutes later realized that the guy she had just been checking out was “that loser” who she had met at the movie. But still—those eyes. She decided to go back and talk to him.

The Phi Delta Theta semiformal was coming up, and Mike told Elizabeth he would be honored it if she would be his date. What he didn’t tell her was that he had methodically mapped out a decision tree, weighing all the pros and cons of asking Elizabeth or someone else. The wise move, the decision tree told him, was to choose Elizabeth. He chose wisely, and she said yes.

The next semester, they found themselves in the same Political Science class. The course was called “Politics and the Libido.” (You can’t make this stuff up). They even ended up writing a paper together. The rest, as they say, is history.

They got married in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens in 1987 and had a daughter, Abby, a few years later. She is now a senior at Barnard College. Mike embarked on a career in media and public affairs, taking on senior leadership positions at the Voice of America, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Vanderbilt University, before returning to Duke in 2008 as the Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations.

Elizabeth’s work took her into the realms of public policy, writing and editing, and gifted education. She was the director of the Vanderbilt Programs for Talented Youth before the family relocated to Durham. She recently went back to school for an MFA in creative writing and is working on novels for young adults, parts of which were written over the past two years in Perkins.

They’re also both big supporters of and advocates for public libraries. Mike served on the public library board of trustees in Nashville, Tennessee, and Durham, and recently completed a term on the State of North Carolina Library Commission.

They’ve also been generous supporters of the Libraries at Duke. In 2009, the Schoenfelds made a gift to name a study carrel on the fourth floor of Perkins Library, not far from where their eyes met that fateful day. The windows on that side of the building look out on rows of slate rooftops and the looming tower of Duke Chapel in the distance. It’s a great view—the kind of view that’s worth a second look.


Peter and Sarah English

Sarah and Peter English
From their favorite spot in the Periodicals Room, Sarah (WC’68) and Peter (T’69) English could watch the sun set behind Duke Chapel.

We all have one. That special corner, table, or chair in the library that we like to think of as ours. Libraries may be spaces we share in common, but it’s natural to lay claim to our own little piece of them.

For Sarah (WC’68) and Peter (T’69), it was a table near a south-facing window in the Periodicals Room. This was in the 1960s, several library renovations and expansions ago. The main West Campus library was simply known then as the General Library. The six-floor Perkins Library was still being built next door. It was the age of card catalogs and closed stacks. If you wanted a book, you had to write your request on a slip of paper and hand it to a librarian, who would fetch it for you.

In the Periodicals Room, the leaded glass windows looked out on Chapel Drive and the statue of James B. Duke. In the evenings, you could watch the sun set behind Duke Chapel. It was a nice view.

Sarah and Peter never studied past 10 p.m. After that, they took the bus to East Campus and walked downtown to have a beer at the Ivy Room or Annamaria’s Pizza House, both popular student hangouts. That was their routine, Monday through Friday, and they looked forward to it every day. Sarah had to be back in the dorm by midnight, a requirement for all Woman’s College undergraduates.

She was an English major and Peter’s senior by one year. He was pre-med. They had met at a party in the spring of 1967. Both were on a committee of students chosen to select and invite prominent speakers to campus during a four-day event in the fall called “Symposium.” After the Symposium committee’s kickoff meeting, there was a little get-together for the student members to get to know each other. “It was love at first sight,” Sarah says.

Pizza at Annamaria's in downtown Durham, a popular hangout spot when Peter and Sarah were students at Duke. Duke University Archives.
Pizza at Annamaria’s in downtown Durham, a popular hangout spot when Peter and Sarah were students at Duke. Duke University Archives.

Two years and countless post-library beers later, they got married in Cleveland, Ohio, Sarah’s hometown. She started graduate school in English at UN C, and Peter started medical school at Duke. As a graduate student, he was given a key to the mysterious locked Stack 8, where many of the medical-related library books were kept.

Occasionally, Peter would head over to UN C and join Sarah in the Undergraduate Library so they could still study together. (There was beer in Chapel Hill, too.)

After a two-year stint in New York so that Peter could do his residency in pediatrics at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, they returned to Durham in 1977. Sarah finished her Ph.D. at UNC and started teaching classes there and at Meredith College in Raleigh. Eventually, Meredith offered her a full-time position. She joined the English faculty and taught there for thirty years.

Peter meanwhile joined the faculty at Duke, with a joint appointment in the departments of pediatrics and history. He taught classes in epidemiology, public health, and the history of medicine. He was fortunate to work at a school with an extensive and highly regarded History of Medicine Collection in the library, and he made good use of it in his teaching and research. For his history of medicine courses, he often required students to come to the library and delve in. At one point, he even made them get a letter signed by a librarian, certifying that they had put their hands on the primary sources of knowledge.

Throughout their teaching careers, Sarah and Peter both maintained close ties to the Duke University Libraries. Sarah served on the executive board of the Friends of the Libraries, helping to organize events, buy more library books, and build support for the Libraries across campus. As professors and bibliophiles in their own right, they accumulated a large personal library at home. But since retiring, they have begun to downsize and divest themselves of a lifetime’s worth of books. “With a grandchild around, we don’t want too many bookcases that look tempting to climb,” Sarah jokes.

They still buy the occasional autographed first edition. But they’ve become big Kindle users and discovered the satisfaction of carrying around an entire library with you.

The table in the Periodicals Room where Peter and Sarah used to study is long gone. So is the Periodicals Room itself, for that matter. It’s part of the library that is currently under renovation and will reopen as the new David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library in 2015.

“But that’s the essence of what a library is,” Peter says. “Constant change.”

True enough. Libraries change. But they keep accumulating stories, like an invisible archive that exists alongside the physical books on the shelves. Each story occupies its own dedicated space, and there’s always room for more.

Read More:


Sweet Nothings: Love Letters from the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library