In September of 1982, a librarian at Duke set up a simple loose-leaf binder suggestion book in the lobby of Perkins Library. Each page in the book had a spaces for three suggestions/questions and three answers. In October of that year, the first group of pages with written suggestions and questions were removed, taken home by that librarian and answered in long-hand, then typed up by an administrative assistant directly onto the original pages and placed back in the book for anyone to read. This was the beginning of the Perkins Library Suggestion/Answer Book, a popular tradition that would live on, in more than one form, for more than twenty years.
At first, the binders were available in the Reference area after the pages filled up; then photocopied versions were bound into volumes and included in the Perkins and Lily Library stacks. In 1993, a “best of” selection was printed in a limited run in-house. But now, the original pages—with accumulated detritus of organic material, white-out, pen and pencil scribbling, and water damage—have at last come to the University Archives for preservation and long-term storage. Some pages are missing and the binders were exposed to water at some point; the lovely people in Conservation have already dealt with some inert mold and the pages are now being rehoused in acid-free folders.
The pages are fascinating. The suggestions and questions are signs of the times, demonstrate student engagement with the library and the University as a whole, and show students being students: curious, angst-y, angry, grateful, silly, and thoughtful. In return, the Answer Person is both serious and facetious, deflecting offensive questions with jokes, omitting names, giving in-depth answers from outside sources, taking constructive suggestions and compliments to heart, and generally being a librarian (often instructing suggest-ers and questioners where they can find their answers instead of simply providing easy answers for them).
Some concerns are clearly timeless: why is the library so cold, why aren’t the printers working, more bathrooms, more food, more lights, please restock the toilet paper:
Some other entries are very much of their time, like the suggestion about types of cigarettes for the vending machines (smoking in the library! This archivist is horrified):
While others are somehow a combination of both, as with this plaintive cry (the very first Library Answer Person question) for space to write and do work on one’s own machine (substitute typewriter with laptop), or this detailed discussion of a current television show (substitute Twin Peaks with Game of Thrones or Man in the High Castle – I mean, whaaaaaat?!):
Many discuss the library and how it could be improved or where it is doing nicely, showing a community engagement with the library that is as strong as it is critical. Also, people really loved the red-haired Reference Librarian and Stuart the Government Documents Librarian:
Then there are the ones I giggled over, the ones that are just people being people, weird and silly:
The sports fans:
People developed a relationship with the Suggestion/Answer Book, and frequently referred back to earlier questions and answers, coming back to see if their own questions had been answered, and responding to the answers and other peoples’ comments. Frequently, there are multiple commenters on a given entry. This kind of discussion led to some deep discussions on controversial or difficult topics, such as the nature of modern art and race in the Duke community (the page with the question #1346A is responding to is unfortunately missing):
And finally, there are the poignant departures:
These pages are a tangible window into the Duke student body’s engagement with the Library, with the University, and with each other. Like a proto-Internet comments page, there is a smorgasbord of humanity here: anger, plentiful curse words, sexism, racism, homophobia, compliments, intelligence, optimism, gratitude, tolerance, joy, and well-wishes. Plus a bag of grits.
To give away a decades-old open secret, the Perkins Library Suggestion/Answer Book Person was John Lubans, Public Services Librarian and Assistant University Librarian, here at Duke from 1982-2001 and the donor of these pages to the University Archives.
Post contributed by Tracy Jackson, Technical Services Archivist for the Duke University Archives.