The Duke Libraries: “A Change Will Do You Good”

A Personal Reflection

Harsha Murthy

Everywhere you hear it, read it, see it: Change. Whether we embrace it, fight it, worry about it, or do our best to ignore it, change is going on all around us every day. Nowhere is this truer than on college campuses. With each incoming class there is a new pattern of faces and characters, a kaleidoscope of ambition and high-jinks, of potential and achievement. At their best, universities challenge students and then send them into the world transformed, prepared to realize their dreams.

Perkins LibraryThose of us fortunate enough to attend or be associated with Duke are particularly lucky because the school (through its leaders) has been committed from its inception to doing things differently. In his inaugural address as the first president of Trinity College in 1910, William Preston Few spoke about the need for the University to take the lead in changing to suit the new conditions of the post-Civil War era, to produce graduates of “efficiency and trustworthiness” and to break from the “chaotic educational conditions” that had hindered the South. Few’s vision of Duke becoming a national force in education and civic life while maintaining its own identity (including eschewing “bigness”) was echoed years later when Terry Sanford, in his 1984 valedictory address as president, spoke of Duke’s commitment to pursuing “outrageous ambitions.”

We alumni are torn between wanting the University to pursue those “outrageous ambitions” while also wishing it to remain as it was during our own student years. Sometimes we cling to what we experienced not because it was good or even pleasant, but because that is how we remember it. The very immutability of our alma mater is a source of comfort because there is so much else that we can’t hold onto—or keep from changing.

Perkins 2000s

This inextricable tension between change and tradition at Duke has found its most tangible and visible manifestation in the Perkins Project, a phrase that inadequately describes the multi-phase, multi-year expansion and re-envisioning of the Duke University Libraries on West Campus. Since the 2005 opening of the Bostock Library and the von der Heyden Pavilion, followed by the 2006 re-making of the first floor of Perkins Library, the University has been engaged in transforming the meaning of the university library, what it is and what it can be in the life of the institution. In so doing, our University has re-established the centrality of the library as the focal point for the institution’s mission of promoting teaching, research, scholarship and even tolerance and community. It is convenient to speak of the new Perkins Library complex (Perkins, Bostock, and the von der Heyden Pavilion) as a place, focusing solely on the attractive buildings and their elegant furnishings. However, the more fundamental change has been in how people at the University engage with each other inside and outside the spaces.

First, it is worth remembering what Perkins Library was to so many of us who graduated from Duke before this transformation occurred. It is fair to say, I think, that it was an after-thought: a necessity but not something to celebrate or even much remember. The impression began with that first visit to Duke. I don’t recall any campus tour guide taking students into Perkins. With a wave of the hand, the guide would say (if anything), “This is our library,” and then she would move forward down the Quad, pointing to the Medical Center entrance and making the quick U-turn past Allen Building and on to the more attractive features of the residential side of West Campus, where the benches were filling with easy-going undergraduates relaxing on a spring afternoon. Yes, the library was an after-thought.

Perkins 1980s

It was not the first place (or maybe even the last place) most of us would cite if asked about our favorite places while we were at Duke. I can remember retreating there, as did my fellow undergraduates, during reading periods and final exams, more to escape the relative chaos of the dorms than because the library provided any special attraction.

studentYet, I don’t want to say that the old Perkins lacked any charms. There was a mystery about the stacks, and in their decrepitude they evoked a sense of communing with deeper gods of academia. The stacks and the Gothic Reading Room both conjured up the romance of libraries. These were the trappings of tradition that many of us wanted from our college experience and which we got in full measure. One actually could smell in the mustiness of the volumes, the history of scholarship, what Professor Linda Orr referred to in a 2006 Duke Magazine article as the “smell of book perfume.” The Perkins of yesterday was a place to be alone. You went there to escape contact with other students so you could write your paper or cram for your exam or read the reserved book your professor had set aside.

To come back to the library today is to have a completely different experience. I have referred to the library’s transformation as “extreme makeover, the University edition” (referring to the television program that takes the small, inadequate and usually dilapidated home of a struggling family and razes it to the ground before putting up a brand new home, replete with the latest appliances and interior design razzle dazzle). The most obvious change is the proliferation and ubiquity of computer technology and how its intrinsic portability has altered our relationship with information. Virtually every student carries a computer; digital video kits, iPods and cameras are common classroom tools. So, why with all the easy access to information from almost anywhere, would a student want to be at the library? Because the space is invigorating and because it creates community around the academic experience.

The new Perkins Library inspires its users to be part of something larger than their individual classes and assignments. The transformation of the buildings has created a library where students and faculty want to be. I recently walked through the Link, the teaching and learning center on lower level one of Perkins, and marveled at a space full of classrooms outfitted with all sorts of technology and furniture that is bright and moveable. I learned that students can participate in video conferences, that teachers can project and manipulate image files for neurobiology or cathedral construction on the classrooms’ electronic screens or diagram schematics on whiteboards. I stopped to speak with a student in one of the breakout rooms who said she was working with two of her classmates on a business plan and profit-and-loss statement for one of their finance courses. I don’t recall having any such collaborations during my undergraduate years!

At the new Perkins Library, students come to collaborate, to check out books, to use databases and to seek the assistance of librarians—and they are there during the day and all through the night. And students also are choosing the library as a place to spend time to study, to write their papers, or to read—all activities they could do elsewhere. Moreover, spaces like the von der Heyden Pavilion, with its coffee shop/café, create an informal atmosphere that is different from the solitude of “hard scholarship” and the structure of the classroom. I am pleased on my visits to the campus to see students meeting with faculty members or administrators in the Pavilion. Where talking might have elicited “shushing” long ago, the new library hums with the sounds of collaboration, laughter and gentle snoring (which happens in the oh-so-comfortable chairs of the reading rooms and will probably continue as long as Duke students “work and play hard”).

When I speak to recent Duke graduates about the library, I am delighted to hear universal praise. I understand that the library is now the second or third most visited spot on campus (after the Chapel and Cameron Indoor Stadium). Indeed, in a Duke Admissions website poll asking students about their favorite places at Duke, several locations in the library were on the list. The library is now a place in which to see and be seen! I also understand that student tour guides now regularly take visitors and prospects to the library, announcing proudly “This is our library.”

There is an especially beautiful view from a fourth floor reading room in the Bostock building. From one side you can look through a glass wall down into the Carpenter Reading Room on the third floor. But if you turn in the other direction, looking out through glass that is a perfect Duke blue, you see the Divinity School and the Chapel. From another window you see the Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences (CIEMAS) and the Duke Forest further south. When the sun comes through those windows, it is easy to understand the unity of the vision of Duke’s founders.

The transformation of Perkins Library is being guided by a dedicated group of administrators, faculty members, librarians, alumni and architects who understand that they are doing more than changing the library’s physical footprint: they are also enlarging the library’s role on campus.

corner stoneI am hopeful that the last phase of the Perkins Project, the renovation of the original 1928 and 1948 library buildings on West Campus, will get the same degree of support—financial and institutional—that created the Project’s early successes—the Bostock Library, the von der Heyden Pavilion, and the transformation of the 1968 building. This last phase, the Cornerstone Phase (the cornerstone for the University is visible on the front of the 1928 library building) will bring renewal and change to the part of the library that houses its most distinctive collections in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library and Duke’s history in the University Archives.

The library may be the place on campus that best exemplifies that combination of efficient learning and collaboration in the development of civic character that William Preston Few spoke about. We strive to be exposed to great ideas and great people and to be inspired enough to find the way to best realize our individual dreams. At the Duke University Libraries, we are changing the buildings to reveal the greater truths about learning communities that lie within.

MurthyHarsha Murthy T’81 is a member of Duke’s Library Advisory Board. He lives and works in New York City and Washington, D.C.