The History of Special Collections at Brown University

Henry Adams  
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Table of Contents:


arrowColonial Period

arrowLate 18th Century

arrowEarly 19th Century

arrow Mid-19th Century

arrowLate 19th Century

 Turn of the Century 

arrow WW I & the 1920's

arrowThe 1930's & WW II

arrow1950 to 1970

arrowThe 1970's

arrowThe 1980's

Reading Room
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The Turn of the Century  

Several important book collections were given to the library at the turn of the century.  Among the most significant were: The Wheaton Collection on International Law, given by William V. Kellen, Class of 1872.  The collection, named in honor of Henry Wheaton, Class of 1802, a major figure in the field of international law, contained many important books, particularly early editions of Grotius and Pufendorf.

The Lysander Dickerman Collection on Egyptology.  Dickerman, Class of 1851, a Congregationalist minister and avid amateur archaeologist, bequeathed 1,200 books on ancient Egypt, establishing the foundation for Brown's exceptional holdings in the field of Egyptology.

The Sidney S. Rider Collection on Rhode Island history, the largest private collection of materials related to Rhode Island, was presented to the library in 1903 by Marsden Perry.  Rider, a leading Providence bookseller and antiquarian, had amassed his collection of books, pamphlets, manuscripts, broadsides and newspapers over 50 years.  Perry, Providence's leading financier and an important collector in his own right, recognized the importance of the Rider Collection for future scholarship and presented it to Brown.

In 1903, the University began, for the first time, to systematically collect the records of its own history. Clarence S. Brigham, Librarian of the Rhode Island Historical Society and later Director of the American Antiquarian Society, was retained as Archivist to locate, classify and arrange early college documents.  Under Brigham's direction, an Archives room was established although rarer items were placed in the more secure Harris Room.

In July of 1905, John Hay, Class of 1858, perhaps the most famous Brown graduate of his day, died in office as U.S. Secretary of State. The following year his widow, Clara Stone Hay, presented 400 books and manuscripts from Hay's personal library to Brown. These books, still maintained as a separate collection, contain many volumes which are inscribed to John Hay. 

By the early 1890's, the library had so little room for books that lesser used materials had to be stored in the basement. Repeated requests for a new library were unavailing until 1906, when Andrew Carnegie contributed $150,000 toward a new library building honoring his late friend, John Hay. A matching amount was raised, ground was broken in 1908, and the new building was dedicated in November, 1910. Designed in the English Renaissance style by the eminent Boston architectural firm of Shepley Rutan & Coolidge, the John Hay Library accommodated 18o readers and 300,000 volumes. As described in the President's report of 1909, there were "separate and convenient rooms for the great special collections of the library, the Harris Collection of American Poetry, the Rider Collection of Rhode Island History, and the Wheaton Collection of International Law, besides proper shelving for art books, rare books, and pamphlets." 

Harry Lyman Koopman, University Librarian from 1893 to 1930, spent most of the summer of 1910 supervising the transfer of books from the old library, now Robinson Hall, to the newly constructed John Hay Library. The Reading Room opened, with the reference collection in place, on September 24 the first day of the fall term. Relocation of 140,000 stack books began in October and was completed by November 11 when the Library was officially dedicated. 

Almost immediately following the opening of the new library, Elmer L Corthell, Hon., 1867, announced his intention of presenting an extensive collection of books, drawings and pamphlets on river and harbor engineering to the University. Corthell, a prominent civil engineer, had gathered these materials during a successful career spanning more than 40 years. This collection began arriving in June of 1911 and was soon housed in a large seminar room on the building's top floor. 

Corthell's collection, plus 6,000 more books donated later along with an endowment, was the genesis of the Corthell Engineering Library. Although most of the books were later incorporated into the general collections of the Sciences Library, the endowment still funds acquisitions in the field of engineering. The original gift and the Corthell Papers remain part of Special Collections as a reminder of the first gift received at the new John Hay Library. 

Also in 1911, the personal library of the late Hammond Lamont, Professor of Rhetoric from 1895 to 1900, was donated to the University as a memorial from his students in the Classes of 1899 and 1900. These 2,700 volumes of 17th-18th century English literature included many works by Daniel DeFoe and William Prynne, including the latter's arrowHistrio-Mastix (London, 1633). 

Colonel George Earl Church, commander of a Rhode Island regiment during the Civil War, spent most of his later life as an explorer and engineer in South America. In 1912, his personal library of over 3,500 volumes of economic, historic, geographic and descriptive studies of South America was received by the library. Many of these books are rare even in South American libraries. Perhaps the most important item in the collection is an 18th century manuscript history of the Bolivian mining town of Potosi, once the largest city in the New World. 

The Church Collection was joined by two others in 1912. The first consisted of over 1,700 books and rare pamphlets, dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries, relating to the works of Dante. It was formed by William Henry Chambers, an English scholar living in Florence, and purchased from his heirs by Professor Courtney Langdon with funds donated by Henry D. Sharpe, Class of 1894. Professor Langdon's own heavily annotated collection was appended to the Chambers Collection in 1925. 

The second collection was a group of more than 2,000 American ballads, most of Civil War vintage, from Frank E. Bliss, Class of 1868. These became the foundation of the Broadsides Collection which now numbers over 50,000 items.

 Professor Lester Frank Ward, recognized today as one of the founders of the field of sociology, donated his library and personal papers in 1914.These 1,200 bound volumes and pamphlets plus several thousand letters and manuscripts represent Ward's interests in botany, paleobotany, geology, philosophy and sociology.  A collection of 1,000 volumes in Icelandic, Pali, and Sanscrit formerly belonging to Dr. Adrian Scott, Class of 1872, was also presented in that year by his classmates as was a copy of William Penn's arrowSelect Works (London, 1771) presented by members of the Herreshoff family.

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Samuel A. Streit, Associate University Librarian for Special Collections
Excerpted from:  Special Collections at Brown University: A History and Guide
Providence, Rhode Island: The Friends of the Library of Brown University, 1988
Funding provided by Daniel G. Siegel (Class of 1957), and the Twenty-First Century Fund

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Last Updated: Thursday, 26-Jul-2007 10:35:33 EDT