What Was It Like When Lilly Was Built?

Lilly Library and other East Campus buildings under construction, July 1926.

To understand why Lilly Library needs renovating, it helps to consider how old the building actually is. So let’s look back at 1927, the year the library opened its doors.

The President of the United States was Calvin Coolidge, known as “Silent Cal” for being a man of few words. (When was the last time one of those got elected?) Speaking of presidents, work had just begun on George Washington’s face, the first to be carved on Mount Rushmore.

It was the year the first transatlantic phone call was made, as well as the first transatlantic flight piloted by Charles Lindbergh in his single-engine Spirit of St. Louis. Novelist Virginia Woolf had just published her masterpiece To the Lighthouse—parts of which were possibly written at the very desk you can see today in Duke’s Rubenstein Library. Meanwhile, moviegoers flocked to see The Jazz Singer, featuring Al Jolsen in blackface, the picture that marked the end of the silent film era.

Historical and cultural touchstones of 1927: Charles Lindbergh made the first transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis; Al Jolsen appeared in blackface in “The Jazz Singer,” marking an end to the silent film era; and Virginia Woolf published her masterpiece “To the Lighthouse.”

In 1927 the world was home to just over two billion people. Some 45,000 of them lived in Durham, North Carolina—compared with 320,000 today. About 8,000 registered cars made up all the traffic there was on Durham’s streets. A pound of bread cost nine cents.

Undergraduate tuition at the fledgling Duke University was $90 per year, not including room and board. That was much cheaper than the $227 charged by Vanderbilt, not to mention the Ivy League schools in the Northeast that Duke aspired to emulate, which were in the $300-400 range. It was even a bargain compared to that other university down the road in Chapel Hill ($111).

The 1927 Duke University football team.

Higher education back then was not the big business it is today. In 1927, only 12 percent of 18-21 year-olds in America were matriculating towards an undergraduate or graduate degree—just over a million young men and women nationwide. They were overwhelmingly men, to be sure, but 1927 was also the year Duke Law School admitted its first woman, Miriam Cox.

Duke’s libraries were different, too. Or library, rather, because there was only one, and it would eventually be named Lilly. The Gothic West Campus was still being built. When it officially opened to students on March 14, 1927, the Chronicle student newspaper marveled that the new library on East Campus had the capacity to store 140,000 volumes. That was plenty of room to grow, since the total collection at that time was only 89,000 books and 2,000 volumes of newspapers—each of which was carried into the new building on the backs of “more than a score of negro workmen who were outfitted with specially constructed wooden crates.” According to University Treasury ledgers, those men earned an average of 26 cents per hour.

Needless to say, the world has changed immeasurably since 1927. But Lilly Library has not. On the whole, the aging edifice is still the same building the great-great-grandparents of today’s Duke students would recognize, only leakier and more neglected. That’s why this renovation is long overdue.