I tried to write my first draft of this column in an actual blue book. I had hoped the nervous adrenaline that keeps my fingers moving during three-hour exams would inspire my thoughts to coalesce faster than they normally do in front of a computer screen. Unfortunately, the anxious knot that usually takes up residence in my stomach a few minutes after a smug TA hands me an examination book wasn’t materializing as a motivator.
This wasn’t supposed to be a difficult assignment, but my brain was having trouble focusing. When I’m faced with exam questions like “How was [insert author]’s work influenced by the idea of modernity?” and eight blank pages of blue book waiting to be filled with my scribbling, my mind usually travels to the slightly more trivial. Why are blue books so small? Why did they have to use wide-rule paper? Why are they BLUE?
In the grand scheme of my academic career, blue books haven’t mattered much. Occasionally I care about the grade penciled in on the inside cover, but the sight of a stack of blue examination books resting beside a podium has never struck deep chords of fear or inspired more than test-day jitters. Nonetheless, I am on a quest to deconstruct the academic institution that is the blue book and find out why those books are blue.
I’m certainly not the first person to associate a little bit of exam anxiety with the classic blue book. While psychology professor and Yale College Dean Peter Salovey explained that there is very little hard evidence that certain colors have a noticeable impact on behavior, a certain organic chemistry exam gave him the blues in his test-taking days.
“We were allowed to bring sticks and balls to the exam to build molecules and answer questions. I had several blue books on my desk,” Salovey explained. “I had spent a long time on one question, building a molecule. I went to write my answer in the blue book, and when I lifted the blue book from underneath, the plastic molecules fell off the desk and bounced off into the auditorium — It was not an exam I remember fondly.”
Students probably were not constructing molecular models when blue books first made their debut, but countless numbers of test-takers since then have directed their frustrations at those 7-by-8.5-inch books. Pontiac Paper Co., which makes Yale’s blue books, produced their first orders for Temple University and Swarthmore College in 1977, Bob Tillberry, the company’s vice president and treasurer, said. But references to blue books go back much farther than that.
John Gould, who spent over 60 years writing for The Christian Science Monitor, described taking his entrance exam for Bowdoin College in a blue book in his Dec. 13, 2002, column. This was in 1927.
More research took me even farther back — to the University of Notre Dame archives. The university has kept the papers of Charles Warren Stoddard, who taught English there from 1885-1887. Among the many letters and manuscripts that he left to posterity are two blank “quarterly examination blue books.” They have to be an early ancestor to what we still use today. Consider them the Homo erectus of blue books.
The standard blue book, which we all face with disdain many times per year, is not as standard as you might think. While the books that Yale uses are the most commonly sold variety, Pontiac Paper Co. also makes “big” blue books that measure 8.5 by 11 inches. Blue books can also vary in length from four to 44 pages, although Tillberry said about 75 percent of their sales are of the 16-page variety. I’m not sure what I would do with 44 pages of blue book. The fact that we write exams in “books” seems intimidating enough.
Blue books can also vary in color, oddly enough. Blue books at Smith College are yellow, and at Exeter they occasionally come in white. Ten to 15 other colleges spice things up with a rotating color scheme. Tillberry declined to name the first school to adopt this pattern due to the cheating scandal that inspired its inception, but suffice it to say that students at this school were selling the previous semester’s exams to the current semester’s students.
“They decided to change the color of the blue book,” Tillberry said. “Instead of the blue book as normal they buy yellow, green, pink, white, gold and blue. Every semester they change them so that they can’t be sold.” Yalies, being honest, or, rather, smart enough not to get caught, only encounter exam books of the blue persuasion.
Pontiac makes an average of eight to nine million blue books each year, which probably explains why you can find stacks of them in nearly every classroom at Yale. Tillberry estimates that they are one of four or five companies that make blue books. Ever on the cutting edge of innovation, Pontiac has made a few additions over the years, like the inclusion of the “lamp of learning” logo and “Home of the Blue Books” slogan on the front cover, and the switch to recycled paper when that became politically correct.
But I digress, for I had yet to answer the burning question: Why are blue books blue? Salovey suggested the sky blue examination book covers were meant to honor Yale.
“Universities all over the world are paying homage to Yale,” he joked. “For students at Yale, it helps them perform their very best: Their pride swells when they’re taking tests because they know the blue book was created in their honor.”
Blue books have never made me feel proud to be a Yalie. Staring at the beautiful stained-glass windows of LC 102 when I was supposed to be writing in my blue book has made me feel proud to be a daughter of Elihu, but looking at a blue book has never made me feel a particular connection to the 300 years of academic excellence that precedes me.
But I had Tillberry, the expert, on the phone.
“Why are blue books blue?” I asked.
“I have no idea.” n