At the John Carter Brown Library, physical and digital renovations usher in a new era of accessibility

The JCB, an independent research library on the Brown University campus, has refreshed its entryway and online collections access, further opening its physical and digital doors to scholars researching the history of the Americas.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Past generations of Brown University students believed that setting foot inside the John Carter Brown Library was about as unlucky as passing through the Van Wickle Gates at times other than Convocation and Commencement.

The JCB, an independent research library focused on the early colonial-era history of the Americas and located in the heart of the Brown campus, might have stoked that fear in students because of its imposing appearance. Entering the building once involved climbing steep limestone stairs, wrenching open two sets of heavy wooden doors and letting one’s eyes adjust to the dim interior.

But Karin Wulf, the JCB’s director and librarian, said she hopes recently completed renovations at the library — both physical and digital — will put those superstitions to rest once and for all. 

“The JCB has always welcomed all students, scholars and members of the public, but visually, the library may not have been sending that message,” said Wulf, who is also a professor of history at Brown. “We felt it was important to make the building and collections more transparent and accessible.” 

colored pencil sketch of renovations at the John Carter Brown Library
Renovations to the building’s entrance on the College Green, finished in May, included the addition of a paved ramp to the entryway and newly installed automatic glass doors. Sketch courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

Under Wulf’s leadership, and with robust support from its board, staff, supporters and Brown University — a close affiliate of the JCB — the library has invested in facilities improvements, designed new digital tools and curated new exhibitions, all in the name of expanding access to its resources and promoting inclusion.

Wulf said renovations to the building’s entrance on the College Green, finished in May, were subtle yet key to improving accessibility. In addition to the stairs, there’s now a paved ramp up to the entryway for wheelchair users and others with disabilities. Daytime visitors now enter the library via two sets of automatic glass doors, which let more light into the space and also allow passersby to see inside the library. (The exterior set of refurbished wooden doors remains, Wulf said, but they are propped open during visiting hours and close only at night.) And the windows inside the main library space have been cleaned and restored to their original state, further boosting the wood-paneled room’s natural light.

“Librarians tell me that researchers used to bring in book lights and lighted magnifying glasses just to be able to read some of the documents they were studying,” Wulf said. “By letting more light into this space, we’re not just making it a more pleasant place to be — we’re also literally making it more visually accessible.”

Boosting access to collections

In the midst of physical renovations, Wulf said, library staff kept busy with equally important digital renovations. In May, the JCB launched Americana, an online portal that brings all of the library’s assets together under one digital roof for the first time. Using Americana, scholars can search for any of the more than 75,000 items in the JCB’s catalog, create their own mini-libraries of items from the collection, annotate documents and even create collaborative projects with fellow researchers. The online platform is named after the Latin word chiseled into the JCB’s façade.

“Americana, too, is all about welcome and access,” Wulf said. “We want to make it easy for scholars anywhere in the world to view and annotate our collections, because they bring diverse perspectives and generate new insights on these items.”

Expanding access to scholars from Indigenous communities and the African diaspora is especially important to the JCB, Wulf said, since the library is home to extensive records of European colonialism, dispossession and enslavement. Built in 1904, the JCB originally housed a small but rich collection that came from the personal library of John Carter Brown, son of the University’s namesake, Nicholas Brown Jr. It has since become a world-leading library of so-called “Americana” — books, maps and manuscripts related to the history of the Americas from the arrival of Europeans circa 1492 to the independence movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Giving scholars from diverse backgrounds the tools to shed new light on the collection is just one of many ways in which the JCB is newly committed to revisiting its own history with a critical eye. 

A new exhibition curated by JCB staff members Bertie Mandelblatt and José Montelongo, “1846: Inventing Americana at the John Carter Brown Library,” explores some of John Carter Brown’s very first 19th-century acquisitions through a 21st-century lens. Among the materials on view, Wulf said, is the first invoice of Brown’s major purchases and the extraordinary materials it listed: a circa-1483 treatise on the Earth and the cosmos that apparently informed Christopher Columbus’s idea that it was possible to circumnavigate the globe; early chronicles from what Europeans called the “New World”; and an essay whose arguments attempted to break apart the Royal Africa Company’s monopoly on the slave-trading business. The exhibition will be on view digitally and in person through at least May 2024.

Also on display in the library, Wulf said, are selected JCB exhibit catalogs and bibliographies from past decades and a few objects that construction crews and staff unearthed in the midst of renovations: turn-of-the-century glass liquor bottles left behind by the original building crew; tiny reading glasses found on a shelf; and decades-old library-branded pencils.

“With these exhibitions, we want to send a message that we are recommitted to thinking critically about the library’s collection and its history,” Wulf said. “It’s important to acknowledge that the library was interpreting this material in a very Eurocentric way early on, and didn’t really incorporate the perspectives of Africans and Indigenous people until much later.”

Brown is an ideal physical home for the JCB, Wulf said, because the University shares the library’s mission of confronting American history in all its complexities. For more than 20 years, people and centers at Brown have explored the legacies of racial slavery, investigated Brown’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and chronicled stories of Indigenous enslavement, among other initiatives.

“I’m a historian, so I am committed to thinking robustly and honestly about the past,” Wulf said. “We’re so fortunate that Brown shares that commitment. We’re all better equipped to understand our present when we understand our past.”