Duke’s First Library

The building now known as Lilly Library opened in 1927 as Duke University’s first library on East Campus while West Campus was being constructed. A Georgian building, its exterior was designed to be identical in size and appearance to the East Campus Union directly across the quad. For more than four decades, it served as the Woman’s College Library. It became the East Campus Library when the Woman’s College merged with Trinity College in 1972. In 1993 a partial renovation upgraded computing facilities and increased the book stacks capacity, and the building was renamed Lilly Library in recognition of a gift from Ruth Lilly, the famed philanthropist and great-grandchild of pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly. Since then, Lilly has served as the primary library for first-year students at Duke.

Overall, Lilly Library has remained remarkably well-preserved since it opened almost a century ago. And that’s part of the problem.

The library under construction in 1926. Image from Duke University Archives.

Beloved, But Left Behind

While Lilly Library and its staff are popular with first-year students and other library users, it lacks most of the elements of a modern research library. Its outdated building systems and cramped, poorly lit study spaces do not serve students and researchers well. Many of the library services and spaces today’s students need to succeed are available in Perkins, Bostock, and Rubenstein libraries on West Campus, but not on East.

Who Uses Lilly the Most?

More than 1,700 first-year Duke students (25 percent of the undergraduate population) make East Campus their home every year, and Lilly serves as their gateway to the full range of library collections and services.

But the library also serves another 600 students and faculty in the academic departments on or near East Campus, including History; Cultural Anthropology; Philosophy; African and African-American Studies; Art, Art History and Visual Studies; Literature; and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. Lilly provides research and course support for the teaching and research faculty in these departments, as well as all of their students (graduate and undergraduate).

In addition to the extensive art, art history, and philosophy collections housed there, Lilly is also home to our popular film and video collection, with over 35,000 DVDs that are widely used by patrons across the university.

First-year students in the Class of 2022 ham it up before the class photo in front of Lilly Library on East Campus, August 2018. Photo by Jared Lazarus / University Communications.

Planned Improvements

The planned expansion will dramatically increase the building’s footprint. It will have significantly more seating and offer more collaborative study spaces and technology-equipped project rooms. The project will also update facility needs—including the heating and cooling systems, lighting, technology infrastructure, and furnishings—to meet today’s standards of safety, accessibility, usability, and service.

Updates will also extend to the elegant Thomas, Few, and Carpenter reading rooms. The charm and character of these beloved spaces will be preserved, but their finishes, furnishings, lighting, and technology infrastructure will be enhanced.

A new cafe-like commons promises to become the crossroads for East Campus that the von der Heyden Pavilion is for West, a place where students and faculty can meet over coffee and snacks.

One of the most dramatic new features is the addition of a second entrance on the west side of the building, connecting the library with the bustling residential “backyard” of East Campus. Enter the library from that side and you will find yourself in a café-like commons filled with natural light—just the kind of cozy gathering space currently lacking on East Campus.