The best books that uncover the surprising histories of college campuses

Who am I?

I find the archaeology of here to be just as interesting and enlightening as any faraway land. For those of us at universities, that means that the campus itself is worthy of historical, archaeological, and anthropological study. I have been San Diego State’s University History Curator for decades and never tire of uncovering new insights into an institution with a 125-year history, nearly 500,000 alumni, and a bevy of bizarre tales. Whether it be hidden student murals, supernatural claims from the gridiron, or disputed dinosaur footprints, the immediate landscape of our workplace is often full of historical treasures.


I wrote...

Hail Montezuma! The Hidden Treasures of San Diego State

By Seth Mallios,

Book cover of Hail Montezuma! The Hidden Treasures of San Diego State

What is my book about?

This place has history. This place has tradition. This place is legendary. San Diego State University is the oldest, most diverse, and largest institution of higher education in the region. Yet over the years, some of its most essential past has been lost, forgotten, or destroyed. Part of the bridge between who we were and who we are has been fragmented. These pieces, however, can be resurrected and reconstructed to affirm the school’s enduring legacy. Recently recovered items—archaeological artifacts from the SDSU’s distant and not-so-distant past—reveal intriguing lost and forgotten tales of San Diego State University’s 125-year history.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University

By Simon J. Bronner,

Book cover of Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University

Why this book?

Campus Traditions is a complete study of college culture that spans centuries and all of the United States. It is thorough, entertaining, and presents a clear evolution of post-secondary education from old-time colleges to today’s mega-university. Professors and students from all fields will recognize their university in this book and marvel at traditions that were thought to have been unique to their school but are, in fact, part of a much greater national trend.

Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University

By Simon J. Bronner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Campus Traditions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From their beginnings, campuses emerged as hotbeds of traditions and folklore. American college students inhabit a culture with its own slang, stories, humor, beliefs, rituals, and pranks. Simon J. Bronner takes a long, engaging look at American campus life and how it is shaped by students and at the same time shapes the values of all who pass through it. The archetypes of absent-minded profs, fumbling jocks, and curve-setting dweebs are the stuff of legend and humor, along with the all-nighters, tailgating parties, and initiations that mark campus tradition--and student identities. Undergraduates in their hallowed halls embrace distinctive traditions because…


Thomas Jefferson's Education

By Alan Taylor,

Book cover of Thomas Jefferson's Education

Why this book?

Whereas many books research the history of higher education are full of lofty ideals and collegiate high jinks, Alan Taylor’s book Thomas Jefferson’s Education is an insightful yet sobering look at the historical context and inception of the University of Virginia. This text is no hagiography and details how Jefferson’s university was deeply intertwined with slavery and many of the elitist vices common to Virginia gentry.

Thomas Jefferson's Education

By Alan Taylor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Thomas Jefferson's Education as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

By turns entertaining and tragic, this beautifully crafted history reveals the origins of a great university in the dilemmas of Virginia slavery. Thomas Jefferson shares centre stage with his family and fellow planters, all dependent on the labour of enslaved black families. With a declining Virginia yielding to commercially vibrant northern states, in 1819 Jefferson proposed to build a university to educate and improve the sons of the planter elite. He hoped they might one day lead a revitalised Virginia free of slavery-and free of the former slaves.

Jefferson's campaign was a contest for the future of a state and…


Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant

By Anne Gardiner Perkins,

Book cover of Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant

Why this book?

Anne Gardiner Perkins’ Yale Needs Women combines rigorous historical research and riveting storytelling to produce a book that is both insightful and inspirational. She explains how Yale University’s first female students in 1969 faced extensive discrimination and had to fight rampant misogyny, outdated traditions, and backwards views on a daily basis to get an education.

Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant

By Anne Gardiner Perkins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Yale Needs Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE 2020 CONNECTICUT BOOK AWARD FOR NONFICTION AND NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS FOR BOOK CLUBS IN 2021 BY BOOKBROWSE
"Perkins' richly detailed narrative is a reminder that gender equity has never come easily, but instead if borne from the exertions of those who precede us."-Nathalia Holt, New York Times bestselling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls
If Yale was going to keep its standing as one of the top two or three colleges in the nation, the availability of women was an amenity it could no longer do without.
In the winter of 1969, from…


The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: A Historical Archaeology of Masculinity at a University Fraternity

By Laurie A. Wilkie,

Book cover of The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: A Historical Archaeology of Masculinity at a University Fraternity

Why this book?

Laurie Wilkie uses multiple lines of evidence, including recently uncovered archaeological artifacts, oral histories, old photographs, and the campus landscape, to examine daily life at UC Berkeley’s first fraternity. Her intriguing study offers insights into the notion of the early modern university as well as changing definitions of masculinity during the early 20th century.

The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: A Historical Archaeology of Masculinity at a University Fraternity

By Laurie A. Wilkie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi" takes us inside the secret, amusing, and sometimes mundane world of a California fraternity around 1900. Gleaning history from recent archaeological excavations and from such intriguing sources as oral histories, architecture, and photographs, Laurie A. Wilkie uncovers details of everyday life in the first fraternity at the University of California, Berkeley, and sets this story into the rich social and historical context of West Coast America at the turn of the last century. In particular, Wilkie examines men's coming-of-age experiences in a period when gender roles and relations were undergoing dramatic changes. Her innovative…


Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses

By Elizabeth Tucker,

Book cover of Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses

Why this book?

Elizabeth Tucker’s highly entertaining and informative Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses is an intricate study of college-campus folklore centered on the supernatural. She painstakingly breaks down the patterns and meanings behind these ghost stories, which reveal important societal lessons for a volatile student body entering the liminal state that is post-secondary education.

Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses

By Elizabeth Tucker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Haunted Halls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why do so many American college students tell stories about encounters with ghosts? In Haunted Halls, the first book-length interpretive study of college ghostlore, Elizabeth Tucker takes the reader back to school to get acquainted with a wide range of college spirits. Some of the best-known ghosts that she discusses are Emory University\'s Dooley, who can disband classes by shooting professors with his water pistol; Mansfield Uni-versity\'s Sara, who threw herself down a flight of stairs after being rejected by her boyfriend; and Huntingdon College\'s Red Lady, who slit her wrists while dressed in a red robe. Gettysburg College students…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in masculinity, Thomas Jefferson, and ghosts?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about masculinity, Thomas Jefferson, and ghosts.

Masculinity Explore 25 books about masculinity
Thomas Jefferson Explore 40 books about Thomas Jefferson
Ghosts Explore 155 books about ghosts

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Bell Jar, My Freshman Year, and Fifty Shades of Grey if you like this list.