The Writing in the Wall: An Interesting Renovation Discovery

Part of the pneumatic tube system in Rubenstein Library. Click on the images to see the full-size versions on our Flickr site.

In the Spring 2013 issue of Duke University Libraries Magazine, we featured an article about the old pneumatic tube system built into the walls of Rubenstein Library. For a brief stretch during the 1940s and 1950s, a system of pneumatic tubes connected the circulation desk with the closed stacks on the upper floors. Students in need of a book would find their selection in the card catalog and write down the call number on a slip of paper, which they would give to the staff at the circulation desk. The paper would be tucked into a small canister, plunked into the pneumatic tube system, and shot up to the appropriate floor. Its arrival was eagerly awaited by a library page, who would fetch the book from the stacks and send it down to the circulation desk via an electric booklift.

At least, that’s how it was supposed to work. Despite its charming complexity, the system was soon abandoned on account of its impracticality, leaving a web of  abandoned tubes woven deep within the walls of the library.

Flash-forward a few decades to the start of the Rubenstein Library renovation, when construction workers began the task of gutting the building down to its basic structure, and removing the many feet of pneumatic tubing lodged in the walls. They soon made an interesting discovery: several old metal canisters, with curling paper call slips still clipped inside of them, had become stuck inside the tubes, their long-overdue requests finally delivered.

The canisters found stuck in the tube system were remarkably well-preserved.

A total of nine canisters were found. Apart from a lavish coat of dust, they are remarkably well-preserved. The metal cylinders feature a solid rubber bottom, which served to soften their landing as they were shot about the library. Inside the lip of each canister is a metal clip, meant to secure the call slips for their brief, windy ride into the stacks.

The call slips were equally dusty, all of them wrinkled and crumpled from their long internment in limbo. However, many of them were scrawled with still-legible handwriting, listing the author, title, and call number of the desired book. So what exactly were our predecessors checking out from the library? And did we still have those books?

A number of the call slips requested books that are still available in the library today.

Fortunately, a good library never relinquishes its treasures, and a number of the requested titles can still be found on the shelves. It seems as if Dukies of old had a taste for classic literature and criticism. Call slips spelled out requests for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a scholarly treatise on Lucretius: Epicurean and Poet, and A Critical History of Greek Philosophy, among others. Of course, there were also more curious titles, such as The Psychology of Algebra. (Math joke: Why are math majors so unhappy? Because they have lots of problems!)

A collection of the call slips, along with the library books requested.

As I was rounding up the books for this blog post,  I couldn’t help being struck by how different the process was. I typed some titles into the (new!) library website and pulled up the call numbers. I snapped a picture of the screen on my iPhone (writing is, apparently, too slow for me) and trotted off to the fourth floor. That was it—no pneumatic tubes, eager pages, or trusty card catalogs. Just a few technological helpers and the great, wide expanse of the stacks.

Gwen Hawkes (T’16) is an English major and Library Communications Assistant at Duke. Special thanks to Wes Weaver, Project Manager with Lend Lease, for alerting us to this discovery! 

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