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Relics of the Past

In a world of computer clusters and DukeCards, the Rare Book Room seems to be a relic of ages past, when mysterious mansions housed rooms full of leather-jacketed volumes, when ornately bound books covered the entrances to secret passageways.

"I think the architecture of the room itself draws people in," said Tim West, director of collection development for the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library. "It has an atmosphere that affects people when they come in. It is almost a sense of reverence."

The Rare Book Room's striking aura matches its striking contents: The room contains such treasures as a book written in a Polish concentration camp and bound in a prisoner's uniform; an original first-edition copy of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, once owned by a Russian prince; one of only about 100 known sets of John James Audobon's original prints; and a first-edition copy of the Book of Mormon.

"We have lots of Mormons that come in... it's a sacred object to them," West said. "They like to have their pictures taken with it and hold it."

Duke's collection of rare books has accumulated over many decades. The manuscript department was founded in 1931 and the rare book department was formally organized in 1942. Between 1989 and 1992, the two merged to form today's Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library.

The rare book branch of the library comprises four sections: the Mary Duke Biddle room, the Dalton-Brand research room, the Flowers room and the Trent room.

The elegant Mary Duke Biddle room, built in 1948, was constructed specifically to house the University's growing collection of rare books. The room is frequented by visitors who wish to take a look at some of the more unique items in the University's collection. Designed to have dim light and low humidity to keep the books in good condition, the room is modeled after an 18th-century British manor house library.

The Dalton-Brand research room is used for material research purposes. Visitors often express amazement at the room's collection of books in miniature format, said Peg Lewis, a volunteer docent for the Rare Book Room.

One of the remarkably tiny treasures is a leather-bound book about the size of a small fingernail-the miniature contains seven versions of The Lord's Prayer in six different languages. The library displays the Gutenberg-printed book in a small Lucite case about the size of a nickel. "Originally these small books were useful because they allowed people to carry them around wherever they went," Lewis said.

The Dalton-Brand room also houses a copy of William the Conqueror's Domesday Book-a tome printed in 1085 that chronicles the land he obtained during his rule-and a set of Charles Dickens' publications, including some of the original series pamphlets that were later published as single texts.

The library's extensive collection of Southern history is based in the Flowers room and includes publications printed during the Confederacy. In addition, the room has publications from esteemed Duke graduates Reynolds Price, Ann Tyler, William Styron and others.

The Trent room is home to the nation's third-best collection of works by Walt Whitman. Here, the library displays actual parts of manuscripts written by Whitman, a signed Whitman photograph from 1871 and multiple editions and copies of his works.

The library, although sometimes intimidating to students because of its strict security regulations, encourages undergraduates to come in and utilize its extensive set of primary sources. "I have to admit when I first walked in, it was slightly intimidating," said freshman Andy Abernathy. "They point out that the cameras are watching you and you have to leave your backpack somewhere else and you have to sign a bunch of papers."

The Rare Book Room's books are stored in closed stacks, but individuals can examine them by lodging a request in the Dalton-Brand research rooms. The Rare Book Room is open during the week and staffed by volunteer docents.

"We're unique among special collections libraries because we're quite open," West said. "We like to think people feel they can come in whenever they want."

Still, the Rare Book Room uses extensive security equipment to ensure the preservation of the collection. "Obviously we have a concern for security because these materials are either irreplaceable or very difficult to replace," said Robert Byrd, director of the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library.


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