Yale is a mysterious place. From whispers of society parties to screams from the Bass Naked Run, there always seems to be some campus tradition that’s equal parts confusing and intriguing.
Hi! My name is Eliza, and I’m a sophomore in Pierson College studying Comparative Literature. I’m one of many Yale students with puzzling backgrounds. I’m trained as a butcher, and I love tofu. I’m Jewish, and my mom’s last name is Church. I’m American, and I went to an international school for 10 years. I quote Proust just as much as I quote Season 8 of Love Island.
I know all too well that there’s a lot more to people, places and things than meets the eye. And that’s why I love Yale. You can never fully understand everything going on here, but you can try! And that’s what Enigma, this column, is all about — digging deeper into these pressing questions and providing much needed answers.
Last week, I uncovered who (or what) controls the aux in Commons. Now I’m turning the tables and investigating the un-common. The rare, if you will.
Mystery rhymes with history. I think that’s a fun coincidence. This year, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library will turn 60 years old. One of its most famous texts, The Gutenberg Bible, will turn 568. Beinecke holds a lot of history. And many, many mysteries.
This haven for rare books looks just as mysterious on the outside as it is on the inside. From the elusive Voynich manuscripts to urban legends of suffocation, the Beinecke embodies Yale’s tendency to house and hide enigmas — in the case of the Beinecke, behind marble.
I took a stroll through Beinecke Plaza this week and couldn’t secure a table. Outdoor studying conditions were ideal, I don’t know what I was expecting. Instead, I popped around a bit to see if the people who’d chosen to study here knew anything about the building providing their shade.
“I don’t know much,” Alex Yu ’25 confessed. “I see it a lot from the outside. It feels like a touristy spot, mainly.” He’s right — I only really observed tour groups, and the occasional academic scholar, entering and exiting the windowless collection.
The Yale undergraduates seemed perfectly comfortable outside the Beinecke, leading me to question: Is the general student population at all curious about what lies beyond the revolving doors?
“I thought it was beautiful,” Danielle Ricketts ’26 said, who had entered during a Bulldog Days tour. “I don’t know much about what’s actually in there, but it’s cool to walk around,” she shared.
I joined Danielle and her friend, Sarah Guan ’23 SPH ’25, as they finished their Commons take-out lunches. When I asked if they’d heard any urban legends about the library, Sarah said, “Yes, I’ve heard that it’s very well protected, or like, there’s a bunch of mechanisms if a fire starts inside. If the books start burning, they shut off all the oxygen, right?”
Right? There’s no way they’d use sprinklers — water would ruin the centuries-old texts just as much as fire would. I wanted to be able to tell them yes or no, but I myself wasn’t sure. No one else in Beinecke Plaza seemed to know.
Do the librarians and archivists clock into work knowing that if a fire starts, the texts will be protected, but they won’t? If that is the case, then they may be some of the very bravest members of the Yale community.
I hesitate to make these kinds of proclamations, but these are just the questions that bounce around in my head. The wildest conspiracies, the weirdest possibilities and the most inconceivable truths. The best kinds of enigmas are nuanced, layered and occupy me for hours.
I sat down with Michael Morand, the director of community engagement at the Beinecke, hoping to delve into these myths and mysteries. He led me downstairs, underground, past a Staff Only sign to his office.
“We are a place of an institution [whose] motto is lux et veritas, so we are about shining light on truth. We do care that people have the actual facts about the place,” Michael told me. He smiled, and I immediately knew I was going to get the answers I was looking for — maybe more.
I started by asking Michael about the architecture. Why is the Beinecke built the way it’s built? It definitely stands out from the surrounding collegiate gothic, dark academia aesthetic. Before meeting with Michael, I thought it looked like a glorified ice cube tray. Some people call it a “jewel box” because of its marble and unique geometry, which mirrors the 3:1:2 golden ratio of many of its books.
Michael explained that the “marble panels allow light to filter in without direct sunlight doing harm to the materials.” Almost like a semipermeable membrane. Or a mosquito net. Some sunlight is good for the texts, but not too much.
Aside from practical protections for the texts, the Beinecke stands out just as much as it blends in on campus. The Book and Snake building, established in 1863, is also a marble, windowless tomb. Commons shares its roofline. Woodbridge Hall has roughly the same diameter and footprint as the Beneicke. “Being continuous and different at the same time, this building is part of a long and living tradition of architectures and buildings on campus,” Michael said.
The architect Gordon Bunshaft intended for the building to last 2,000 years — and it shows. Michael pulled out a 2017 copy of Black Panther Comics, and flipped until he found The Wakandan Royal Library. The scene was unmistakable: the illustrator just copied the interior of this archive. Basically, the Beinecke found its way into the MCU.
The library has also spawned many urban legends. Michael wasn’t surprised: “I’ve been around for many years, so I’ve heard many different things. I’ve heard people say staff have to leave when all the oxygen is sucked out.” The more severe version of the infamous myth says that the oxygen would immediately be sucked out of the room to stop the flames from spreading to any valuable pages, suffocating all who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I wanted to know: Is it true? Are the Beinecke staff truly the bravest members of the Yale community? Michael chuckled. “Well, in fact, they also have to leave in case of fire, because of [the] fire.” Fair enough. But Michael also pointed out that “fire is what would itself take all the oxygen eventually.”
Regardless, he shared that, “this place uses a clean agent fire suppression system, so non-water based” to prevent the library going up into flames. To my understanding, it releases some kind of chemical or gas that stops the fires; however, Michael said, “It is not lethal.” In short, the myth is false. Beinecke scholars can rest assured that they will not spontaneously asphyxiate while studying Renaissance manuscripts.
Apparently, another myth that circulated was that the building could retract in case of nuclear attack. Nobody I talked to had heard this one, but apparently it was very popular during the Cold War era. “If buildings have urban legends about them, that means people care about them” Michael told me. “We are a place that encourages people to come with their curiosity and to solve puzzles and enigmas.”
One such puzzle is the renowned Voynich Manuscript, an indecipherable document written in an unknown script, just begging to be explored. The ultimate enigma, also available online: “We’ve made a high resolution digital scan, so anyone can look at it” Michael said. “All they need is an internet connection.”
If it’s accessible worldwide, why hasn’t it been solved yet? In theory, you could decode Voynichese in the comfort of your own home. You have no excuse.
The library is a dominant figure even in the News’ archives. The Oct. 14, 1963 print issue of the Yale Daily News chronicles the library’s opening with this headline: “Beinecke’s Windowless Library Opens; Tomb Conceals Decayed Books.” But now that I know what I know, they couldn’t be more wrong.
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is many things, but I would never call it a “tomb of decaying books.” Michael told me the Beinecke’s architecture embodies the library’s mission, “which is to engage the past in the present for the future. It is a forward-looking place.”
So many of the people watching “Introduction to Psychology” lectures or resubmitting overdue French homework in Beinecke Plaza don’t consider the library to be anything more than a sunshade. When in reality, it’s a fascinating piece of architecture that houses texts just waiting to be interpreted and understood.
It is alive, and full of mysteries that still need solving. Michael said it best: “This is a great storehouse of the humanities that is here for people to ask questions, put things together and figure out for themselves who they are, where they come from.”
After exploring the Beinecke, I’ll certainly be back, and not just because it’s the place on campus where I can most comfortably pretend I’m in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And when I do return, I can rest assured that, thanks to the clean agent fire suppression system, the only thing spreading like wildfire will be ideas.