Writing on the Wall

Library rediscovers lost voices in works of student graffiti.

In the dim, hushed depths of the library, the hidden voices of generations of Duke students are speaking again.

They have been awakened through graffiti— decades-old thoughts, pictures, quips, and silly curses that were etched over the years on walls, desks, chairs, and shelves in the library stacks. Staff members rediscovered the graffiti this summer while cleaning out storage areas that were once part of the old Perkins Library stacks, giving new oxygen to the scrawled angst and boredom of hundreds of past students.

On a well-worn, wooden desk—all right angles and strong, creaky drawers— there are lyrics to a long-ago popular Pink Floyd song, written meticulously in thick, black marker. It sandwiches a Frank Zappa tune.

On a nearby shelf, a boy declares his love for a girl. On another, a pencilscrawled debate rages over whether those “damn Yankee” Duke students from the North should just go home already.

“Yes, it’s true,” one student writes on a countertop. “I’m here in the library (Gulp) studying, shudder, shudder. I’ve caught that terrible disease. Maybe I will only take 4 classes next semester. Well, can’t waste anymore time writing. Gotta hit them books. (Gag).”

It’s like a Facebook wall, about twenty years early.

“It’s pre-social media, connecting with people in your sphere,” notes Will Hansen, assistant curator of collections for the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. “It’s mostly Duke students talking to other Duke students.”

Scrawls of time: Graffiti uncovered during the library's renovations [Credit: Eric Ferreri]

The graffiti owe their second act to the massive Rubenstein Library renovation project, which started this fall. Library staff members spent much of the summer moving seven floors of books, pamphlets, sheet music, and other materials to temporary storage, uncovering parts of the library that had long been hidden from public view. But the graffiti’s new life will be brief. Most of it will be scrubbed over or discarded as part of the renovations, which are scheduled to continue through 2015. Library staff members are documenting some of it, keeping an archive on a Flickr page.

Not all of it merits preservation, of course. Much is profane and sexual, such as the numerous notes found in a corner nook where so many young couples boast of consummating their, ahem, unwritten graduation requirement.

But there’s artistry, as well, like the penciled portrait of Bart Simpson and the odd series of gravestones with a weeping willow arching ever so delicately over them.

And there’s poetry. Lots of poetry. In a dark corner of the seventh-floor annex, a section of T.S. Eliot’s classic “The Waste Land” is penned near another all-time classic, “Badlands,” by Bruce Springsteen, the poet laureate of New Jersey.

Gray Harley was an eighteen-year-old freshman in 1990 when he etched his name and the date “11/6/90” into a library desk and drew a circle around it. Now a forty-year-old lawyer in Charleston, South Carolina, Harley laughed when presented proof of his low-level vandalism.

“I hate to think I was putting graffiti in the stacks but I guess I did,” says Harley, who graduated from Duke in 1994 with an English major. “That’s what immature eighteen-year-olds do; they write on desks.”

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