Duke University Alumni Magazine



ne of my favorite books in Perkins Library gets scribbled on all the time. And that's a good thing. The book is the "Libraries Suggestion Book," which sits in the building's vestibule, inviting patrons to "express your library concerns." Contained in a loose-leaf binder, it has the disorderly attributes of hypertext: Themes appear, veer off in surprising directions, and reappear; and even with the presence of an authorial authority, the reader-user clearly controls the flow of the narrative.

Those concerns, as it happens, more often take the form of active questioning than earnest suggesting. They range from the institutional to the existential. One scribbled note asked the biggest of questions with an economy of words: "What is the meaning of life?" "The meaning of life," responded the library's ever-chipper and ever-conscientious "Answer Person," has a library reference as a collection of "unpublished letters and diaries of Leo Tolstoy. Call number: 891.73 T654 ME." Somehow, you know the inquirer, even if he never tracks down the work, is bound to take comfort in the "ME."

"Is there such thing as predestination?" went another question. "If so, where am I going?" "You were meant to ask this question," the Answer Person said. "You were meant to read this answer. In the very near future you will walk away from this book."

You can learn a lot about student interests from the suggestion book. It includes complaints about the library's failure to subscribe to Romanian newspapers, insufficient numbers of Korean books and periodicals in the South Asian collection, and the arrival of the British Economist magazine a full week after the publication date.

You can also learn a lot about the workings of a library. One library patron suggested switching from the Dewey system to the Library of Congress system, an idea once studied by the library: "A hundred years from now, everyone will be glad." The response pointed out that such a change would cost millions of dollars, that it would disrupt the collection for years, and that "while the Library of Congress system does work better for some academic fields, Dewey works better for others." There's one Answer Person entry that explains the distinctions among a folio (a book produced from sheets folded twice), a quarto (from sheets folded four times), and--the most common book form--an octavo (produced on a sheet of paper folded eight times). A few years ago, Perkins integrated quartos and octavos; folios remain apart.

Perkins' atmosphere is a recurring theme in the suggestion book; and now and again, the observations are acid. "Why is this library so damn ugly?" complained one correspondent. The Answer Person noted soothingly that "welcoming" and "encouraging of study" are terms applied in envisioning a Perkins renovation. "The three joined buildings do not add up to an easy-to-use or open facility." "Renovate!" insisted another library patron. With that challenge, the Answer Person revealed an administrator's first instinct: "Donate!!!!!"

If you ever doubted that pragmatic concerns penetrate the rarified reaches of Perkins, consider this query: "Is massage therapy a legitimate concern? I am considering going to massage therapy school. Do you think this would be complete waste of a $120,000 Duke degree?" The Answer Person responded reassuringly, "Yes, it is a legitimate field," urged the inquirer to check out a massage-professionals website, and observed, with a refreshing validation of the liberal-arts ideal, that "depending on how well-rounded your education at Duke has been, you ought to be able to create a good career and personally rewarding life."

Another student, with a shorter-range outlook on life's consuming issues, lamented an addiction to fast-food treats at McDonald's. The student asked if the food was "bad for me," and--with full anticipation of the verdict--pleaded, "How can I stop myself from eating so much?" The Answer Person produced the address of the McDonald's website, which includes "charts of the nutritional (!) value of their food." The proposed two-step method of breaking the addiction was direct if not particularly imaginative: "(1) You spot a McDonald's. (2) You don't go in."

The Answer Person shows an intellectual agility you would expect of a librarian--along with a patient attentiveness to the duties of correspondence. "Is sleep-walking connected with stress?" wondered one student, presumably at the height of final exams. The Answer Person referred the student to articles in Forensic Reports, the British Journal of Psychiatry, and Sleep. There seemed to be evidence of a connection, which might have been bad news for the student, and might have added some stress to the life of the student's roommate.

"In a fight to the death in three feet of water," inquired another student, "who would win--a polar bear or a great white shark?" The answer: "Ideally, the bear and the shark would strike an accord and consume, as appetizers, the people compelled to observe something like this." And addressing another layer of this animal kingdom, there was this: "Are elephants really afraid of mice?" The Answer Person reached to Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo to stomp on the myth: "If an elephant were to encounter a mouse, it would likely ignore it. If the elephant was bored, it might try to crush a mouse with its foot!"

Someone else wanted to know the greatest rock-and-roll album of all time. The Answer Person duly researched recording-industry statistics, and reported that Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" scored at the top, with eleven million purchases. "Candle in the Wind" is, of course, a single, not an album. Is this omniscient, all-knowing figure (the Answer Person, not Elton John) revealing a careless side

--or perhaps revealing a hopeless affection for frothy and forgettable music? Obviously sensitive to the requisites of cultural literacy, the Answer Person did add that with three million copies, "Elvis comes in tied for seventh with 'Hound Dog.' " Leo Tolstoy was nowhere on the charts.

But some comments are directed to less exotic--and more urgent--issues. A number of students have penned complaints about books being officially "available," only to be missing from the shelves. The Answer Person points out that the online catalogue will record a book as "not checked out." That doesn't mean the book isn't where it doesn't belong. The technical term is "shelf failure," which sounds like a massive structural collapse, but simply refers to "a book not being where it should be with no traces of where it has gone." According to the Answer Person, the staff has been "reading" the shelves more actively, but it's tough finding sufficient student workers to keep up with shelving demands. "Our dilemma is that an open-stack collection of unique items has a strong inclination toward disorder."

The library is, of course, more than the sum of its books. Observing that "Duke's social life revolves around socializing in the library," one contributor wondered why Perkins did not provide lounge space with a television set (it does have its own cafŽ). The Answer Person didn't exactly embrace the idea of remaking the library into a social hub. Perhaps reflecting written complaints about the noise level in the building (created by visiting middle-school groups as well as socializing students), the response showed that a tender theme had been struck: "Wow! The library is one of the university's centers of social life! This is a wonderful thing to say about one of the academic centers of the university--or a desperate cry for help." It's not clear whether the socially-starved student or the library had reached the depths of desperation.

Even if particular titles and uninterrupted silence are hard to find, library-stack graffiti is easily discernible. "Has anyone compiled a list of the best stacks graffiti?" inquired one student. "I think this would be an awesome thing, and I'd volunteer for the job if you can pay me!" An enterprising student indeed, if not especially generous with his pay-for-volunteering offer. "Rumor has it that there's at least one doctoral dissertation published on the topic," said the Answer Person. "Why not pitch the idea to Duke Press as a sociological study?" The topic still awaits its scholar.

As the intellectual core and a social hub of the campus, a library is a good place for a sociological study. Just as words are cultural signifiers, libraries are university signifiers. They suggest what a university stands for: investigating, debating, and propagating ideas. The sometimes arcane, seemingly random, and often irreverent discussion in the "Libraries Suggestion Book" tells us something about how people see this building--and about how they see themselves. It's worth checking out.

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