Myths abound about Beinecke

Since its opening in 1963, the marble exterior of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has kept hidden Yale’s most obscure texts and invited the speculation of visitors and students alike. Stephen Jones, head of access services at the Beinecke Library, shared with the News some of the most widespread rumors and absurd myths that abound on campus.

MYTH: In the event of a nuclear attack on New Haven, the Beinecke will descend into the ground, acting as a bomb shelter.

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Jeff Kaiser
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FALSE: When the Beinecke Library opened, the United States was at the height of the Cold War. Because many public buildings had fallout shelters, Jones said, this rumor seemed plausible to some. In reality, such a feat would be impossible because an underground stream runs beneath the building.

MYTH: The library’s fire-extinguishing system removes the air from the book stacks in the event of a conflagration, dooming any librarians inside to a slow death by asphyxiation.

MOSTLY FALSE: According to Jones, this legend has a kernel of truth: Instead of water sprinklers that would harm the rare books collections, he said, a combination of halon and Inergen gases would be pumped into the stacks to stop the combustion process, and thus the spread of fire.

“They do lower the percentage of oxygen, but not enough to kill any librarians,” Jones said.

The inner stacks surrounded by glass that house the Beinecke Library’s delicate collections (known to insiders as “the Tower”) are airtight in order to slow the books’ aging process. This presented problems in the mid-1970s when a bookworm infestation could not be addressed with traditional airborne insecticides, Jones said. To solve the problem, the library worked with Yale entomologist Charles Remington, who recommended that the affected books be wrapped in plastic and frozen at minus 33 degrees for three days. The process, which is still used on all of the Beinecke Library’s new acquisitions, took two and a half years to complete, Jones said.

MYTH: The exterior of the building was originally designed to look like a sheet of “Green Stamps” — the iconic trading coupons distributed by grocery stores from the 1930s to the 1980s. To achieve this effect, planners originally intended to use green onyx rather than marble.

FALSE: This rumor seems plausible, as the Beinecke family that provided the funding for the library also founded the Sperry and Hutchinson Company, which distributed the stamps. Though architect Gordon Bunshaft did consider using amber, Jones said, green onyx was never an option and green stamps did not inspire his design. Jones said Yale tour guides often tell visitors this misconception while introducing them to the library.

“I’ve actually met with tour guides and told them not to perpetuate the rumors,” Jones said. “It still happens.”

MYTH: Undergraduates do not have access to the Beinecke Library’s materials.

FALSE: Joe O’Rourke ’12 put this myth best: “For a long time I didn’t realize that the Beinecke had a basement for people to study,” he said. “I almost thought the books in the tower were just for librarians to look at and take out every once in a while.”

Jones said this is the most pervasive myth on campus. In actuality, all students and faculty may use any of the library’s nearly 1 million volumes in the reading room downstairs. Moira Fitzgerald, assistant head of access services at the Beinecke, said the library only restricts the circulation of certain fragile documents such as the popular Voynich manuscript, donated to Yale in 1969, which uses an unknown, undecipherable language and contains illustrations of strange plants and nude women swimming. Images of the manuscript’s pages have been made available online, but Fitzgerald said most of the inquiries she receives are motivated by curiosity, and library staff only allows those for whom the manuscript will advance their academic research to examine it.

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