Durham, North Carolina
Week's end

The Herald-Sun
June 4, 2005

The ancient Greeks, circa 1,400 B.C., had their Oracle at Delphi. People came from all over the known world and beyond to have their questions answered by Pythia, the priestess of Apollo. Depending on how one interpreted them, the Oracle's cryptic answers could send armies into battle or simplify matters of the heart. Delphi was believed to be the "omphalos," literally the navel, or the center of the world.

In modern times, many believe the omphalos has shifted to the other side of the globe, and is now located right here in Durham at Duke's Perkins Library, where the cryptic answers are provided by the modern-day Pythia, the anonymous Answer Person. As The Herald-Sun's Paul Bonner reported this week, since the 1980s Duke students have been writing their questions and suggestions -- about library topics and everything else in the universe -- in a simple three-ring binder.

At some point, the binder is spirited away and delivered to the Answer Person, whose typed answers miraculously appear in the book to entertain, confuse, and occasionally, inform the stressed-out students seeking a break from their studies.

The book is now up to 3,200 pages and contains nearly 10,000 questions and answers. Perusing the exchanges, it quickly becomes clear that some of the answers may not be 100 percent factual:

"Question: Are the traffic circles on campus really perfect 360 degree circles?

"Answer: They should be since Campus Drive was placed in between the two existing "crop" rings. Old timers still talk of the bright lights (lasers) that cold night in February out in the tobacco fields decades ago -- when the cigar shaped hovering object flitted away ("just like a bodacious large firefly" one said). All that remained were two perfect circled burns into the ground. Nothing has ever grown there since."

Sometimes, the questions can get a little personal:

"Question: Will you marry me?

"Answer: Leave a picture and last year's tax form 1040 and your proposal will be given all due consideration."

Other questions actually deal with library issues -- sort of:

"Question: Free the bound periodicals!

"Answer: Under glasnost, major improvements in the condition of these dissidents of the sub-basement gulag have occurred. Familial visits are now permitted and on occasion, certain terms being met, escorted visits to other parts of the university are permitted."

Or the questions and answers may confront some of life's deepest questions, such as:

"Question: Is there a God?

"Answer: There are over 200,000 books in the Divinity School Library that can be consulted in your search for the answer. As a member of the Duke community, you have full access to these materials."

"Question: Tell me who wrote the Book of Love.

"Answer: The Beach Boys at an abalone bake on the California coast in June of 1963."

Occasionally, a bit of sage wisdom is tossed out:

"Question: Why are there so many unanswered questions?

"Answer: To prepare you for the real world where answers are scarce and questions many."

For many reasons -- the years spent toiling in obscurity, bringing the center of the Earth to Durham and, most important, proving that even a prestigious, high-pressure academic institution can have a sense of humor, Duke's Answer Person is the recipient of this week's Durham Grit Award.

Long may he or she provide the answers to life's most serious -- and silly -- questions.

More questions and answers can be viewed at www.lib.duke.edu/suggest

: 2005 The Durham Herald