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Study space inside Lilly Library
Study desks are currently squeezed into a variety of tight spaces in stacks of the Lilly Library. Photo by Chris Hildreth

Pictures of Lilly

After Duke’s historic first library building is renovated in 2024, the stacks will be new, but the charm will remain

In a little wooden desk squeezed among the stacks in Lilly Library is a drawer. Open that drawer and drop into a conversation among Dukies that has lasted decades. With markers, pencils and pens, people have scrawled notes on the wood interior. Some simple: “Finals 2019” or “Multivariable calculus sucks.” Others inspirational – “You are where you need to be!” – or ribald. One, though, expresses something about Lilly itself: “Surrounded by all this knowledge … isolated between books … I become so much more MOTIVATED.” 

Kelley Lawton, head of East Campus Libraries, gets it. “You walk into the stacks like we have at Lilly,” she says, “and you’re like, ‘I’m in a library.’” Nothing against the internet or the clean, modern shelving of Perkins or Bostock, but Lilly, with its marble floors, ceiling-height steel shelves (they actually hold up the building) and sneaky little staircases, radiates “books.” A long-deferred $45 million renovation of the space, now scheduled for summer 2024, will retain Lilly’s beloved reading rooms, the open lobby and the silent Thomas Room, with its treasury of Asian art. But the four floors of stacks and a dumbwaiter for moving books from one floor to another will give way to more modern systems. These include assembly space and a new west-side entrance that will feature a coffee shop and outdoor terrace, “desperately needed on East Campus,” which lacks such spaces, Lawton says.

Lilly was Duke’s first library, serving the entire university starting in 1927, then becoming the Woman’s College Library in 1930 when the West Campus library (then the General Library, now Perkins) opened. It is now the arts and humanities library and took the name “Lilly” in 1990 in recognition of a gift from philanthropist Ruth Lilly, the great-granddaughter of pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly. The reading rooms, with chandeliers and coffered ceilings, were beloved from the start. The stacks always offered not just books but atmosphere and contemplation, and the renovation will replace them with more modern and movable shelving. They’re losing those romantic stacks, says Lawton, “but we’re gaining shelving that works” for Lily’s art and other collections.

Some of the changes will not only sustain Lilly’s charm but intensify that bookish atmosphere. In 1930, original librarian Lillian Gregg created a special casual reading room, the Booklover’s Room, with comfy chairs, footstools and lamps. The space was repurposed over the years, but the renovated library will have a new Booklover’s Room – still with shelves, comfy chairs, and lamps – in place of the training room that users now pass as they enter. Lawton expects it to hold author readings, book clubs and, yes, casual reading.

About that soon-to-be-gone dumbwaiter: Yes, of course, despite its size and weight limit of 100 pounds, students have been known to ride it. Maybe its absence will make space for a desk with a very special drawer.