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From Martha Mitchell’s Encyclopedia Brunoniana:


The Library in the earliest days of the college depended on gifts of books from its benefactors. The first known book in the library was a gift from its president, being Valentin Schindler’s Lexicon Pentaglotten, Hebraicum, Chaldaicum, Syriacum ... Rabbinicum & Arabicum, Hanoviae, 1612, which bore the inscription, “The gift of the Revd. James Manning to Rhode Island College June 17th, 1767.” Morgan Edwards, soliciting funds in England and Ireland in 1767 and 1768, was also given books for the library. James Manning, in a letter to Thomas Llewelyn, February 21, 1772, stated, “At present we have but about two hundred and fifty volumes and those not well chosen, being such as our friends could best spare.” Twenty-seven of these volumes had been received in 1771 from student Joseph Dolbeare Russell 1772, an assortment which included among their subjects philosophy, algebra, histories of Scotland and Iceland, and eight volumes of the Spectator. In 1772 the executors of John Gill, biblical commentator, of London, added to the library all his published works plus 52 volumes of other religious works.

In 1776, when the British arrived in Newport and the College Edifice was needed for barracks, all the books in the College Library were removed to Wrentham, Massachusetts, to the home of William Williams 1769. There they remained until 1782, when the library, now returned to the College Edifice, was described by Manning in a letter to Samuel Stennett of London as “about five hundred volumes, most of which are both very ancient and very useless, as well as very ragged and unsightly.” Actually, a catalogue of the returning books in Manning’s hand lists 607 volumes, including 165 folios, 81 quartos, 146 octavos, and 215 duodecimos. Size of the books was of importance. The Laws of 1783 allowed a folio to be taken for four weeks, a quarto for three weeks, an octavo for two weeks, and a duodecimo for one week, and the size of the fine for not returning a book also depended on the size of the book. A letter of Asher Robbins written in 1843 recalls the library in 1782, but his estimate of its size is at variance with Manning’s catalogue.

“At the reorganization of the College, in the autumn of 1782, I was appointed to the office of tutor, and took charge of the Library as librarian. It was then kept in the east chamber on the second floor of the central building; the volumes it contained were quite limited in number – these mostly the primary editions of the works in folio and quarto. The precise number I am not able to recollect; my impression is that it did not exceed two or three hundred. Of the previous history of the Library, I have not certain knowledge, I believe however it was acquired by purchase, through the agency of the Rev. Morgan Edwards, and that it was imported after the removal of the College from Warren and the erection of the college edifice in Providence.”

The Corporation named two committees in 1783, one to solicit donations in Providence and Newport and one to prepare a list of philosophical instruments and books to be bought with the subscriptions. John Brown offered to match the subscriptions of all other donors, and 1,400 volumes were ordered from London the following year. Moses Brown also imported a collection of books relating to the Society of Friends for the library. In 1785 Dr. Caleb Evans of Bristol, England wrote to Manning announcing the gift of the Education Society in Bristol of a number of volumes of which it was disposing. The Education Society had been founded in 1780 to aid the Baptist Academy at Bristol, its purpose being to promote the supply of able clergy for Baptists “in any part of the British dominions.” In this case the Society was gracious in assisting an institution no longer of the British dominions. In 1793 a law library of three hundred volumes was presented by Nicholas Brown 1786. The “Richards Legacy,” about thirteen hundred books, some of them in the Welsh language, was bequeathed to the College by Reverend William Richards of Lynn, England.

A catalogue of the library, published in 1793, contained 2,173 volumes. The next catalogue, published in 1826, listed 5,818. Prior to 1824, a College tutor had acted as librarian. In that year Professor Horatio Gates Bowen was named librarian. He initiated the “subscription of 1825,” which raised $840 for the purchase of books. Another donation came in the form of 283 books, gifts of English gentlemen, brought back from England by Professor Romeo Elton in 1827, along with 85 books which he had purchased on the order of Messrs. Brown and Ives. In 1838 Mrs. Elizabeth H. Bartol of Boston and Mrs. Hepsy S. Wayland, wife of the president, donated 356 volumes of French and Italian literature.

Donations of books were useful, but the library could not depend on them for its pressing needs. After Francis Wayland became president, measures were taken in 1831 to raise $25,000 to establish a permanent library fund. Nicholas Brown promptly subscribed $10,000. When the subscriptions had reached $19,438, the money was put at interest until the fund reached $25,000. The first dividend became available in July 1839. The Corporation voted that all subscribers to the Library Fund, all subscribers to the building of Rhode Island Hall, and all donors of forty dollars or more to the Library who resided in Providence would be allowed free use of the library.

The library moved into Manning Hall in 1834. In 1841 Charles Coffin Jewett 1835 was appointed Librarian and charged with making a new catalogue of the library, which contained about 10,000 volumes. In the preface to the Catalogue of the Library of Brown University of 1843, he described the reorganization of the library:

“Shelves for the accommodation of thirty thousand volumes have been constructed, with every reference to neatness of appearance and economy of room. The books have been assorted, according to their sizes, and as far as convenient according to their subjects, and placed permanently upon the shelves. A minute classification of the books according to the subjects of which they treat has not been thought desirable, because it had been found impossible to continue such a classification in a library receiving constant accessions, without the sacrifice of more important advantages. In fact, the value of such an arrangement is very trifling, provided the Catalogue be properly constructed.”
A year after the catalogue was published, the librarian was able to report that “not a single book has been lost.”

The library continued to grow, and by 1852 the Joint Library Committee pointed out the “absolute incapacity of Manning Hall to meet the existing wants of the Library.” The work of the librarian also increased, to the point that in 1877 an assistant, Daniel Beckwith 1870, was appointed. Even the overcrowded library in Manning Hall with books piled up around the stately interior columns was an inspiration for Benjamin Ide Wheeler 1875, later President of the University of California. He wrote,

“The library with its thirty-eight thousand books made a profound impression on me. Its mysterious alcoves lined to the high ceilings with delicately matched volumes whose backs proclaimed their worth; the boxes of cards on the window-seats which, written in the noble calligraphy of the librarian, presented an array of titled opportunities for learning such as my eye had never seen; the loving care of Dr. Guild as he patted the backs of the books on the shelves and constrained them to euphistic order; the story of the rare editions and wonderful collections which the librarian was glad to tell, even to freshmen – all these combined to make the library in my eyes by far the most dignified and worshipful department of the college. The orderliness of the books in their clever arrangement by size and binding played no small part in the impression, but I remember some years later a rising doubt, when finding a shelf of interspersed volumes in Arabic, Shan, Cherokee and Persian, I asked the assistant what particular classification that shelf represented, and received the answer: ‘That shelf, Mr. Wheeler, represents a body of languages with which the librarian is totally unacquainted.’”

The “New Library” (now Robinson Hall) was dedicated on February 16, 1878. The next morning librarian Reuben A. Guild, with Professor J. Lewis Diman, carried the first book to the new building. It was Bagster’s Polyglot Bible, which he placed reverently as the first book on the first shelf in the first alcove, calling it “the book of books, the embodiment of true wisdom, and the fountain head of real culture, civilization and moral improvement.” With the opening of the new library and after much thought, a new system for the arrangement of the books was adopted. Above the east, north, and west wings were printed the three general divisions, History, Science, and Literature. The books were arranged in 24 classifications and shelved in the 24 alcoves on the first floor. The students made good use of the new library, which was open from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M. To encourage outside reading, recommended books were assembled on the open shelves of the first floor. Other floors could be visited with permission, and such was the care taken of the books that it was reported that “One book missing at the close of the year 1881-82, was afterwards found to have fallen behind others on the shelf where it belonged.” The new regulations adopted by the Corporation on June 20, 1878 permitted undergraduates to borrow up to three volumes for two weeks, provided that any student planning to leave Providence for more than one week return his books before his departure.

In 1881 Rev. Josiah Nelson Cushing 1862 presented a collection of the sacred writings of the Buddhists written in the Pali language on palm leaves. In 1883 the library acquired books from the library of Joseph J. Cooke, who bequeathed to Brown, and to several other colleges, $5,000 to be spent at auction sales of his books.

It was not many years before the library had again outgrown its quarters, and plans were made for a new library to house 300,000 volumes. Part of the plan, which involved continuing the use of the old library for departmental libraries after the opening of the John Hay Library in 1910, was abandoned. On the continuing problem of cataloguing the books, even with the use of Library of Congress cards, President Faunce commented in his annual report in 1916, “What if, after twenty years of minute and exhausting labor, a new and different system should seem advisable? ... Certainly what the reader most desires is a catalogue raisonné, giving some critical estimate of the value and significance of each book. Yet on this matter our catalogues offer no help, but overwhelm us with a list in which books authoritative and trivial, significant and meaningless, good, bad, and indifferent, stand on equal footing.”

By 1929 space problems in the John Hay Library were so acute that duplicate and lesser used volumes were sent to the Tockwotten branch of the Providence Public Library for storage. The library came through the depression by the skin of its teeth with the help of library employees who from their reduced salaries managed to contribute, along with members of the University Library Committee, the funds needed to maintain the library’s schedule. During World War II Librarian Henry B. Van Hoesen managed to have the library’s agents abroad buy and store the foreign periodicals needed to maintain the library’s holdings.

President Henry Wriston took a special interest in the library, which he called “the heart of the University.” When he arrived in 1937, there were seventeen departmental libraries housed in campus buildings other than the John Hay Library. When the Metcalf Research Laboratory was built the next year, the books in mathematics, engineering, and the physical sciences were installed in a new Physical Sciences Library in that building. Part of the first floor of Arnold Laboratory became the Biological Sciences Library.

A much needed addition was built on the John Hay Library in 1939, not the adjacent marble structure of equal size that had been designed, but a less costly brick wing providing two floors of reading space and six floors of stacks. The other departmental libraries were gathered into the expanded John Hay Library, which now had Humanities and Social Studies reading rooms. Where students had earlier received their books through a small cage, Wriston had an open counter installed, which the students called “Hank’s bar, the longest in town.” At this time the services of manuscripts and rare books were centralized in a department of Special Collections. In 1961 the library received a collection of 35,000 Chinese books from Dr. Charles Sidney Gardner of Harvard’s Yenching Institute. The Rockefeller Library with a capacity of 1,500,000 books was opened in 1964. In 1971 the Sciences Library with room for 450,000 volumes brought together the Biological Sciences Library and the Physical Sciences Library.

In 1954 the library announced the acquisition of its millionth item, De Homine Figuris et Latinate Donatus a Florentio Schuyl by Descartes, printed in Leyden in 1662, a gift of Albert E. Lownes ’20, and its eight hundred thousandth book, Compendium Pharmaceuticum, compiled by John Francis Coste, physician-in-chief of the French forces in America in the Revolution, given by the heirs of Solomon Drowne 1773. In 1988 the library designated as its two-millionth book a first-edition copy of Pavlov’s Lectures on the Function of the Main Food-Digesting Glands, printed in St Petersburg in 1897. In honor of this event Vartan Gregorian, president of the New York Public Library, gave a forum at Commencement on “The Book and the People of the Book.”

The University Library, which is open over one hundred hours per week, now contains more than five million items in the four libraries in the system; the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library (social sciences and humanities), the Sciences Library, the John Hay Library (special collections, rare books, manuscripts, and the University Archives), and the Virginia Baldwin Orwig Music Library. The Pembroke Library was for a number of years kept open to provide a convenient collection of books and periodicals on the Pembroke campus). Library materials can be located by consulting JOSIAH, the Brown University Library Online Catalog named for Josiah Carberry, in the libraries or at remote terminals connected to the campus network BRUNET. The art slide library and media services for the University community are administered by the University Library, as are the satellites installed in 1989 for the purpose of receiving television broadcasts from the Soviet Union, international satellites over the Atlantic Ocean, and United States and Canadian satellites. The Library is a selective depository for United States government documents and United Nations publications and a comprehensive depository for United States Geological Survey maps.

The John Hay Library houses a number of outstanding special collections. One of these is the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays, which was bequeathed to the University in 1884 by Senator Henry Bowen Anthony 1833. The collection was of sufficient importance for Walt Whitman to contribute to the Critic an article entitled “Five Thousand Poems,” beginning, “There have been collected in a cluster nearly five thousand big and little American poems – all that diligent and long-continued research could lay hands on! The author of ‘Old Grimes Is Dead’ commenced it, more than fifty years ago; then the cluster was passed on and accumulated by C. F. Harris; then further passed on and added to by the late Senator Anthony, from whom the collection has been bequeathed to Brown University. A catalogue (such as it is) has been made and published of these five hundred poems–and is probably the most curious and suggestive part of the whole affair.” The author of “Old Grimes’ was Albert Gorton Greene 1820, whose collection was on his death purchased by Caleb Fiske Harris 1838, and on the death of Harris purchased by Henry Bowen Anthony 1835. In accordance with the conditions of Anthony’s bequest the collection was kept together and placed in the room over the front entrance to the library building with a suitable inscription by Professor John Larkin Lincoln placed on the wall of the room. The number of volumes, underestimated by Whitman, was said have been about 6,000. The collection was then and still is the largest collection of American poetry and plays in the world. The McLellan Lincoln Collection was the gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. 1897 in 1923. At that time, the collection which had been begun by Charles W. McLellan and continued by his son, Hugh McLellan, contained nearly 4,000 bound volumes and pamphlets and 2,000 other items.

The Williams Table Collection is the name of the reassembled library of the College at the time of the Revolutionary War, and takes its name from the table which William Williams 1769 used as a student and in which he later stored some of the books in the college library which were sent to his home in Wrentham, Massachusetts, for safekeeping during the Revolution. The table itself, bequeathed to the University by his daughter in 1867, stands in the John Hay Library near the collection.

The early librarians were generally tutors in the College, who added the care of the library to their other duties, and usually served for only a few years. The first of the long-term librarians was Horatio Gates Bowen from 1824 to 1840, who was followed by Charles C. Jewett from 1842 to 1848, Reuben A. Guild from 1848 to 1893, Harry Lyman Koopman from 1893 to 1930, Henry B. Van Hoesen from 1930 to 1949, David A. Jonah from 1949 to 1974, Charles D. Churchwell from 1974 to 1979, C. James Schmidt from 1979 to 1982, and Merrily Taylor since 1982.

The above entry appears in Encyclopedia Brunoniana by Martha Mitchell, copyright 1993 by the Brown University Library. It is used here by permission of the author and the University and may not be copied or further distributed without permission.

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