Beyond the book: Our library at 50

The Class of 1945 Library celebrates 50 years as the intellectual and cultural heart of Exeter.

Jack Herney ’46, ’69, ’71, ’74, ’92, ’95 (Hon.)
October 27, 2021

For many years, former Academy Archivist Ed Desrochers ’45 (Hon.) read letters from the Academy’s holdings as part of the orientation program for new students. These included a three-letter sequence from a new student, the first of which expressed terrible homesickness and how much he missed his family. By the third letter, written about two weeks after the first, there was a different sentiment, as it ended with, “Tell Papa that if he thinks I am homesick, he is very much mistaken, for I wouldn’t go home for anything, until vacation.” One fall, at the end of the program, a young man stayed behind, approached Desrochers and said, “Thank you for reading those letters. Until I heard them, I thought I was the only kid who felt that way. I think I can make it now.”

Similarly, Desrochers often ended his Parents Weekend program with correspondence, in this case a letter from statesman Daniel Webster, who wrote to his son, then a student at Exeter, saying, “You are at the most important period of your life,” and urging him to “cherish all the good counsel which your dear mother used to give you.” Each time, Desrochers recalls, “I would watch some of the parents just melt in front of me ... and there was always a line of parents requesting a copy of the letter.”

Our library is a place of stored memories and shared experiences, a place of community connection across generations, a place where the holdings are just the beginning of the story.

We think of a library, even now in the digital age, as being most of all about books. The Class of 1945 Library certainly has many of those. Since its opening in 1971 with 80,000 volumes, the collection has grown to 140,000, and it continues to expand through databases that give access to library holdings throughout the world. But it is about so much more. As these letters make clear, our library is a place of stored memories and shared experiences, a place of community connection across generations, a place where the holdings are just the beginning of the story.

More than 50 years ago, the Program Statement, written by the library committee that recommended Louis Kahn (Fig. 1) as architect, suggested the new library be about what takes place inside, calling for a building that was “no longer a mere depository for books and periodicals, the modern library becomes ... a quiet retreat for study, reading, and reflection; the intellectual center of the community.” Surely, over its first five decades, the Academy Library has fulfilled that directive, and beyond. Not only a quiet place for reflection and study, the library has touched the lives of so many — students and faculty, of course, but also alumni, parents, staff and friends outside the Academy community. Its impact demonstrates that the wisdom of author Wendy Lesser’s comment on its architecture, in her biography of Kahn, also applies to what’s happened on the inside of our library, that “There is always something new to be discovered here: that is the main thing the library seems to be saying.”

“There is always something new to be discovered here: that is the main thing the library seems to be saying.”

Wendy Lesser, author "You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn"


In what is surely a most important moment in the library’s history, both symbolically and practically, Librarian Jacquelyn Thomas ’45, ’62, ’69 (Hon.); P’78, P’79, P’81 (Fig. 2) decided to place a Harkness table in the middle of Rockefeller Hall, thereby acknowledging that the icon of Exeter’s pedagogy should have pride of place in the library, that it, too, should be recognized as a classroom, albeit a very large and glorious one. Classes have met there ever since, undisturbed and focused, as patrons walked by observing at the table what Exeter is all about.

Harkness tables and Harkness classes in the library have proliferated, so that the dozens of classes held there annually in the early years now number in the hundreds. Prominent among them were those in Junior Studies, an interdisciplinary course for preps begun when the new curriculum was adopted in the mid-1980s. At the end of fall term, all preps and their instructors gathered in Rockefeller Hall for their first Exeter “graduation,” complete with officiants garbed in academic robes, proclamations read and time capsules stored. Four years later, those preps, now seniors, opened those capsules to revisit the artifacts inside from their first term at the Academy.

As preps matured as scholars, the extent of their use of library resources grew, culminating for many in the History Department’s term paper, when 300-plus uppers and a few seniors descended on the library each spring. A collection of sources as extensive as ours, not to mention online databases, allowed students to explore most any topic they could conjure up, such as Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago as a Cold War weapon through recently released CIA documents; or the 1918 influenza pandemic in New York through the official papers of the city’s Department of Health; or Henry Kissinger’s role in the opening of China through the foreign relations papers in our stacks.

Sometimes this research produced unexpected discover-ies. In 2014, upper Dana Tung included in her bibliography Richard Nixon’s Six Crises, in which she found a “dickey slip” issued to T.G. Katzman on Nov. 14, 1972, 42 years earlier, for missing A.A. Polychronis’ science class. On the opposite side was a note, written by Nathan Radford ’91, stating “... T.G. got this Dicky even before I was born and who knows maybe I’m writing this to someone who isn’t even born yet. ... Don’t get stressed. ... Stop to smell the roses. Listen to the Grateful Dead. Jerry saves. ... Good luck.” Here the library brought together, through Dana’s discovery, three Exonians, generations apart. Dana added her own note to the book, along with Nathan’s, awaiting discovery by a future Exonian.

English classes have long made use of the library’s rare copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio from 1632 and, more recently, his Fourth Folio (Fig. 3), students delicately leafing through with white gloves to marvel at these treasures. Homage to The Bard has taken more robust forms, including the 450th birthday celebration with students, faculty and alums standing on the Harkness table in Rockefeller Hall performing scenes from his plays. That was just part of a spectacular that also featured poetry on a Caliban theme written by English Instructor Todd Hearon and set to music by Greg Brown ’93. The students of English Instructor Becky Moore’s Children’s Literature course used the library’s design itself for a class in which they partnered with children from the Harris Family Children’s Center (Fig. 4). Having identified the countless geometric shapes one sees simply by looking around and up in Rockefeller Hall, Becky’s students helped the youngsters find and name them, increasing their mathematical vocabulary.

The Art Department also made constructive use of the design features of Rockefeller Hall. One assignment for an architecture course required students to build a parachute device that would cradle an egg. After the parachute was dropped from the upper levels, it would hopefully land the egg safely, unbroken, on the floor. Naturally, the final day of this project, when students launched their parachutes, became a spectator sport as eager onlookers watched the result: safe landing or ... splat. That event has since been moved outside the building, for obvious reasons. And the Modern Language Department for a time oversaw a browsing area and video collection for eager linguists. These examples help explain how the library has secured its place as one of the Academy’s most exciting classrooms.

While we may think of students being those using the library’s resources, faculty have also profited from its holdings for their very serious scholarship. Among the many is former History Instructor Ted Bedford ’48, who, when writing a book on 20th-century American history, recounted asking Reference Librarian Marilyn Worboys whether the Harvard or Dartmouth libraries might have an obscure collection of Depression-era interviews. “Did you check the catalog?” she asked. He hadn’t and, of course, the book was just upstairs. Former History Instructor Michael Golay (Fig. 5) used the library extensively for his book The Tide of Empire, as well as for a current work in progress. And since he wrote seven books, History Instructor Don Cole no doubt logged many hours rummaging through the collection. Other Exeter faculty have found the library to be a welcoming host for presentations of their published work, as when Dolores Kendrick read from her Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women, just one of the many Academy authors to find there an appreciative audience. 

In addition, the George Bennett Fellow, a writer-in-residence chosen by a faculty committee (Fig. 6), makes their office in the library for the year and presents readings there for the Academy and the public. Current faculty may also become a Friends Faculty Fellow, thanks to Librarian Gail Scanlon’s idea of inviting instructors into the library, with summer stipends, to work on a project of their choosing. That program is funded by the Friends of the Academy Library, a group of alumni, parents of alumni, emeriti and retired staff whose contributions each year also provide support for acquisitions and many of the concerts, exhibits and other library offerings. The Friends, begun in 1930 and revitalized with the opening of the library in the early 1970s, were for many years chaired by Rob Shapiro ’68, surely one of the library’s most dedicated cheerleaders — his name now gracing the door of one of the classrooms on the fourth floor.

A collection of sources as extensive as ours, not to mention online databases, allow students to explore most any topic they can conjure up.


Just as the library’s holdings have expanded to assist scholars in their work, the collection has grown to accommodate patrons with a variety of interests. As the popularity of CDs grew in the 1980s so did the library’s music holdings — classical, jazz, folk, most any genre — expanding to fill the mezzanine room above the card catalog. When technology shifted to DVDs, the Student Council proposed and the library agreed in 2001 to house CinemExeter, making available what has become a collection of hundreds of movies for student use outside the library. Students have not only contributed ideas about library acquisitions. Over the years they have also urged — and in one Exonian article titled “Library Fascism” (Fig. 7) even demanded — expanded library hours for more time to study. The latest request, delivered more diplomatically, suggested an earlier opening hour on Sunday. Such eager scholars deserve the kind of library Exeter has provided.

The interior spaces of the library have undergone some revision, particularly of late, all designed to enhance study and reflection. Glass-enclosed study rooms have been added on the third floor, in spaces created by removing stacks not needed for shelving books, providing opportunities for collaborative study of up to four or five students. The Kaplanoff Room on the ground floor is now the Library Commons (Fig. 8), where students can study, socialize and even enjoy food and beverages. Most recently, the entire basement has been renovated into expanded space for the archives, with tables in the open middle for research, and the Jay Whipple Special Collections Vault, which will display many of the library’s treasures, to be overseen by our current archivist, Magee Lawhorn. 

The Academy Library has also inspired intellectual stimulation and reflection in very public ways, becoming an open forum where art and ideas are presented and discussed. In 1983, Corliss Lamont ’22 endowed, at the suggestion of Librarian Jackie Thomas, a program to bring two poets each year to the Academy. Since then, virtually every major poet, beginning with Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, has presented a reading in the library — a list that includes four Nobel laureates and numerous Pulitzer Prize winners. As a companion, in 2004 the Lamont Younger Poet Prize was established, to honor deceased English instructor Rex McGuinn, a champion of young poets, by recognizing the best of prep and lower poetry. Award ceremonies are often held, appropriately, in the library’s Lamont Room, in which formerly hung a portrait of Lamont, painted by the eminent Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (fig 9). In welcoming the audience to the 2006 awards ceremony, Thomas admitted, “Corliss didn’t much like that portrait, so it’s all right if you don’t either.” Though currently on loan, when the portrait is returned to the Academy, visitors will be able to render their own judgment.

Events hosted in the library have included a symposium on the works of James Agee ’28; an evening with the Benchley family of writers; and a talk with James Baldwin as part of a partnership with the Lamont Gallery on the Harlem Renaissance.


Other events hosted in the library have included a symposium on the works of James Agee ’28, author of the American classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, attended by Father Flye, age 96, Agee’s correspondent when a student at Exeter; an evening with the Benchley family of writers with several Benchleys on hand, Nathaniel ’34, Robert ’38 and Robert III; and a talk with James Baldwin (Fig. 10), novelist, poet and activist and author of such works as The Fire Next Time, as part of a partnership with the Lamont Gallery on the Harlem Renaissance. Such programs introduced the community to a broad range of American letters, from serious issues of social criticism to lighter topics of humor and satire.

In 2000, “The French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial Exhibition” featured 250 photographs of children deported to concentration camps, with PEA’s La Cantate, an all-girl vocal group, singing a Yiddish lullaby as part of the opening reception. Projects related to the exhibit developed by a religion class on the Holocaust were displayed in cases in the library’s entry. A year later, 10 monks from Drepung Gomang Monastic University in South India created over several days a large, intricate, colorful and architecturally breathtaking sand mandala on the floor of the hall, entrancing onlookers, who by the time of the ending ceremony of dispersal numbered in the hundreds. Accompanying the sand mandala exhibit were images from Tibet taken by globetrotting photographer Ellen Kaplowitz. In 2006, Michael Rockefeller’s pictures of Dani warriors from the western highlands of New Guinea were on display in the hall named in his memory. A more recent exhibit, titled in a manner to appeal to patrons of all ages, “Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine,” explored the ways in which Renaissance traditions played a role in the development of modern science, as well as assisting J.K Rowling in creating the magical world of Harry Potter. These programs represent just a sampling of countless such events hosted in the library since 1971 that expanded and enriched the educational experience of all venturing inside. 

As guests walked into the library to attend such events, they might have passed by displays created by the librarians. “Tally Ho” featured just 100 items from John H. Daniels’ ’39 collection of 5,000 “Sporting Books, Prints, Manuscripts and Ephemera” dating from 1500 to the present. Another displayed a portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt as part of AIDS awareness week in 1994. In 1985, librarians created a “Banned Books” display, an event repeated often since, most recently featuring banned books written by Exeter alums John Irving ’61, John Knowles ’45 and Dan Brown ’82. Such displays seem to encourage a belief in historian Edmund Morgan’s notion that libraries should be “nurseries of heresy and independence of thought.”

Often over the years, exhibits have also showcased the library’s Special Collections, which feature remarkable treasures from the 16th to 21st centuries and have grown significantly since the library’s opening. In 2007, “Expanding the Known World” featured accounts written by noted explorers and sea captains — James Cook on his first Pacific voyage in 1769, Captain William Bligh, he of mutiny fame, on voyages in the South Pacific, and George Vancouver’s expedition to northwestern North America. Speaking of Captain Bligh, among the library’s extensive collection of original manuscripts is Nordhoff and Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty. While many of the Special Collections are housed in the archives for safekeeping, the Bates Mountaineering Collection (Fig. 11) of 500-plus titles is housed in its own room open to the public. When the Academy received the 300-plus films of the Ottaway/Adams Silent Film Collection, a showing of “The Phantom of the Opera” marked the event, signifying the collection’s availability for entertainment as well as research. In 1987, the library published a pamphlet, Rarities of Our Time, which details all of the impressive holdings in the Special Collections, yet another part of the library’s inventory of discoveries to be found.

While libraries aren’t usually considered performance spaces, yet another gift our library has bestowed to the community is that it has become a stage, with special qualities that help make it so. Music Librarian Drew Gatto has commented that, “I have always thought of our library as an instrument unto itself ... an active performer and participant in the magic being created.” Such magical moments have included the Summer Concert Series, long a welcome addition to the musical experience of not only the Academy but the larger Exeter community, featuring classical, jazz and folk programs. For many years Rob Richards, dressed as Ebenezer Scrooge (Fig. 12), has performed Dickens’ A Christmas Carol before audiences that included pajama-clad Academy children sitting on the floor at his feet, enraptured. Storytellers Jay O’Callahan and Odds Bodkin have made repeated appearances, inspiring the creation of the R.W. Ellis “Anvil” Prizes for storytelling, open to Exeter students, with performances often held in the Kaplanoff Room.

“I have always thought of our library as an instrument unto itself ... an active performer and participant in the magic being created.”

— Music Librarian Drew Gatto  

Not all visitors or events in the library have been planned, or even welcomed. The first interloper of note, a cat named Mycroft (Fig. 13) belonging to English Instructor John Kane and his wife, Mary Ann, would slip inside and curl up in sunlit corners, requiring the librarians to launch a Mycroft search before closing to ensure his departure. While accomplishing that chore, they weren’t similarly successful one December night in ferreting out persons hidden away. Then-Librarian Ted Bedford recounted how students snuck out of hiding after the 9 p.m. closing to decorate the giant Christmas tree in Rockefeller Hall, so that surprised librarians found the next morning an evergreen, previously decorated only with lights, now adorned with all manner of cranberry and popcorn garlands and handmade ornaments. Given the tree’s height of 30 feet, that was, as Bedford reported, “no easy task, even for elves with high SAT scores.” Other uninvited guests were not so constructive. Take the Andover students who released 57 mice, painted blue, on floor 3M, requiring their capture by librarians, on their hands and knees. Jackie Thomas patrolled the next day with her cat, McCavity (Fig. 13), to ensure the job was complete.

Exeter students have demonstrated their adolescent side as well, using the upper floors as launching pads for all manner of debris: a giant pumpkin, snowballs and, once, a large, inflated palm tree suspended first into the center of Rockefeller Hall and then days later on the outside of the building. In this case. the perpetrator was apprehended and appeared before a faculty committee to receive his punishment. To demonstrate the rehabilitative power of the school’s discipline system, that miscreant is now a tenured member of the Academy’s Science Department. 

While four-legged creatures have sometimes been a bane to librarians, their latest appearance is very much a planned event and a welcome one to students — the Study Paws program (Fig. 14), which brings faculty and staff dogs to the library to provide furry companionship to harried students during stressful times, particularly in May. That might be considered an oddity for a library, but then again, our resourceful librarians have devised over the years many ingenious ways to lure students inside, such as a miniature golf course laid out among all floors; game nights when various board games (Fig. 15) are set up around the building; and sleepovers for library proctors, much of this due to the creativity of Librarian Gail Scanlon. Once upon a time, dances were held in Rockefeller Hall, until the evening Thomas noticed, standing in the Kaplanoff Room on the ground floor, the ceiling pulsating above her. That was the last dance. That inviting space has, however, been the scene of all manner of less rambunctious social occasions — retirement send-offs, faculty receptions, small alumni dinners, even weddings and wedding receptions, the latest just this past August between two PEA faculty, Instructors Andrew McTammany ’04 and Tyler Caldwell.

Classes are rarely canceled at Exeter, but they were on Nov. 16, 1971, in order for all students, working in shifts of 400 with faculty acting as monitors, to carry 60,000 volumes, in book brigades, from Davis Library into the new library (Fig. 16). Since then, that day has been recognized as the Academy Library’s official opening, celebrated on some occasions with talks by its first librarian, Rodney Armstrong, and Kahn biographer Carter Wiseman ’63, on others by a cutting of a large chocolate cake, in the shape of the library of course, with streamers released from upper floors. On the 40th anniversary, the program featured a three-dimensional installation and projected images with performances by Music Department Instructors Jon Sakata and Jung Mi Lee, an evening that no doubt left attendees with a new appreciation of Goethe’s observation that “architecture is frozen music.” This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our library, an event designed by students that will feature art and film installations with music and poetry performances.

Nothing less is demanded in order to suitably pay tribute to our library, which has become, after all, a national landmark. In 1997 the American Institute of Architects, which each year recognizes a single building that “exemplifies a design of enduring significance,” selected Exeter’s library. In 2005, the library was one of 12 “Masterworks of Modern American Architecture” to be honored with a stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service (see “Exeter Deconstructed,” pg. 24). More important than those accolades is what has happened, what has been discovered, inside the building and what that has meant to all who ventured inside. Librarians over the years, its chief stewards, but assisted by faculty, students, alumni and friends, clearly have always seen the library as more than a depository of books. For the past 50 years, in addition to making it a haven for scholars of all ages, they have made it the intellectual and cultural center of the campus. Beyond expanding the mind, we have discovered there much to excite our emotions and enrich the spirit, a legacy that gives great promise for the next 50 years.