For Whom the Baker Bells Toll

by Hannah Hyun-Jeong Nam | 10/9/14 6:43pm

As the air gets colder and the sky starts to merge darker shades of blue and purple, I often find myself, whether suffocating in the stacks on Sunday night, hanging in my room or lounging on the Green, absentmindedly wondering why the bells of Baker Library haven’t yet tolled the “Alma Mater.” It is not long after I pause my work and mull over this thought that the bells unfailingly begin, and it is then that I resume my work with a habitual nod of satisfaction.

When I first came to Dartmouth a few weeks back, every upperclassman I met would talk to me about the bells and the diverse and seemingly random songs that rung out across campus at 3:47 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.

Although my “ooh”s and “aah”s started to get a little strained by the 16th or so time that the story was recounted, the aura of mystery surrounding the bells did not dwindle. As time passed, I came to believe that the myth about the bells was just that, a myth, another vestige of the safety talk — not once had they struck a tune other than the “Alma Mater.”

At 10 p.m. on a Saturday night as I pored over a psychology textbook for a midterm, something inconceivable happened — the theme to “Harry Potter” boomed across the empty (sidenote: I will never be studying on a Saturday night again) library, the bells tolling away for not just the first verse, but also the second. Students greeted this iconic theme song with a sudden roar streaming from outside, and even inside, the library in clear delight.

Freshmen talked about it the next day, and so many questions lingered in our minds — who, or what, rings the bells? Who decides which songs to play? How could songs even be requested? People had a vague notion that it was possible, yet not a single person knew the details.

So I kept asking. Every student who I approached was stumped.

“I really like them — they’re really encouraging when you hear songs that you know and you’re like ‘Oh!’ It makes my day,” Ashley Kekona ’18 said.

However, not even Nigel Mills ’15, who works at the library, knew how the songs were requested — or even that they could be.

“I didn’t know you could — I thought the College just chose... based off of feedback from alumni,” he said. This is wrong.

Other students expressed confusion over the nature of the bell playing in and of itself. Some had a few hypotheses.

“My friend Young told me that it’s a machine that actually plays it, not a person,” said Taeho Sung ’17. He also did not know how to request songs.

Kristina Williams ’16 heard the bells even before she even enrolled, through a Dartmouth program for high school students.

“Well, when I first got to Dartmouth [it was] my senior year in high school and I remember I was going to the bell tower, and they were playing a song,” she said, adding that the bells were a reason she came to Dartmouth.

Annie Ahn ’18 said the bells provide a needed distraction during long days.

“I really like them because whenever I’m having a busy day and the bells start playing it makes me feel calm, and it kind of reminds me of my school pride,” she said. “It also motivates me to move forward each day.”

When asked what song would play on the bells in her ideal world, she chose “Crazy Love” by Mindy Gledhill.

While shrouded in mystery, the actual process of requesting a song is very simple (I even figured it out from the Internet). All you need to do is Blitz “Bells” with a song name and a date and time. If you want the song to be played on a specific date, then send the blitz well in advance as new songs have to be programmed.

Thankfully we’re not the first generation of Dartmouth undergrads to be confused about the nature of the bells.

In a 1960 issue of The Dartmouth, the mechanisms of the bells were disclosed for the first time after much speculation. About 20 years later, in the 1981 winter edition of Kiewit Comments, another article regarding the bells was published, titled “Who Rings Baker Bells?” Decades later, it is high time to revive the topic.

Ozias Silsby, Class of 1785, rang the first campus bell, earning a two-pound-and-two-shilling hourly wage. (For clarification’s sake, the 15 original bells of Baker Library were first installed and played in 1928, with a 16th donated in 1981.)

When I first set out to discover the mystery behind the bells, I tried to interview the current bell ringer, figuring that this person must be an expert musician and extremely knowledgeable about the history of one of our campus’s most distinguishable features. This person does not exist. A mechanical system of the bells made by Walter Durrschmidt in the College’s own physics laboratory controls the physical ringing of the bells. The bells went digital in 1997, after music major Peter Yoo ’98 and computer science major Jon Feldman ’97 undertook an electronic overhaul of the previous programming. I tried to reach out to the bell programer, but recieved no response, so some parts of the story will just have to remain a mystery.

Now when I hear a tune start to echo across campus from the bells of Baker Tower, I pause and reflect on this rare moment of clarity amid the confusion that we face throughout our overwhelming days. I think about who chose that particular song for that particular day and hour and who is probably feeling the same way, too.