‘The rare book library as a research centre’

In 1956, a year before Thomas R. Adams became librarian of the John Carter Brown Library, he queried the university librarian at Princeton about the administration of the rare book collections in the library. The questionnaire was part of a larger survey project resulting in Adams’s article in Library Trends, entitled “Rare Books: Their Influence on the Library World.” (April 1957). Adams’s first five questions were headed “Origins of the Collection.”

Tom Adams was always interested in fundamental questions, such as how and why a collection began. I learned this fact when I worked for him between 1969 and 1974. I was reminded again of this characteristic as I listened to several of his closest personal friends in the profession speak at his memorial this past Saturday.

His last publication appears in the Winter 2008 issue of The Book Collector. It is a valedictory entitled “Defining Americana: The Evolution of the John Carter Brown Library.”

He begins with a remarkable sentence: “The emergence of a rare book library as a research centre had its origins in a reaction to the growth of the tax-supported free public library.” In one swoop, Tom Adams has told us how began the enterprise in which he made his career. His reason fits a larger theme common in collecting – that all collecting is reparative. Thus, one aspect of the ‘rare book library as reseach centre’ was to provide a locus apart from the leveling, ‘best books’ approach provided by an agency of the modern, democratic state. On the other hand, his genesis story can also be considered in terms of changing public policy. Indeed, Adams moves in this direction on page three in his summary story of American libraries. Their roots, he says, lay in the reading publics associated with colleges, churches, or subscriptions ‘companies.’ But as the reading public enlarged in the 19th century, and, concurrently, as did their voting rights and their popular powers to shape public policy, so did ideas about what a library could be. Tax support enabled possession without ownership — the actuality that readers could have a book in their hands independent of the means needed to control it as property.

Adams’s point then is that owners of precious, rare books found such developments alarming because they disabled a system for the future public life of a collector’s books. For these collectors – Adams gives the names on page one: … Peter Force, Thomas Aspinwall, George Brinley, James Lenox, Henry C. Murphy, James Carson Brevoort, Samuel Latham Mitchill Barlow and John Carter Brown — in the days of their youth, the college, church, and company model was in place. There was a certain wholeness in this model. But, by their latter years, and certainly by the early years of their children, a new, mixed, more democratic model was in place. To recover ‘the place of grace’ tracing back to earlier times, it made sense to set up a future apart and anew. In this context, then, we come to the words of John Carter Brown’s son who declared in his will “that this library … shall preserve its identity as a whole” (p. 5)

Although it makes sense to conclude that for Carter Brown’s son, John Nicholas, the phrase “to preserve its individual identity as a whole” meant disunion with the merging democratic tendencies of a Boston Public or a New York Public, there is still the question as to what was meant positively by this phrase. What is a library’s “individual identity”? Can its identity really be independent of the community that shaped it?

I suggest that the John Carter Brown represents an idea comparable to the the idea of the States United. It represents the hope that a singular act will preserve an abstraction — just as it was hoped that a particular declaration made in Philadelphia one past July would bring liberty.

Therein lies the positive meaning of ‘to preserve its individual identity’ — namely, the point of the library was to define, to describe, to help us understand an idea rather than mass-commodify it. ‘The rare book library as a research centre’ is about questions, rather than answers.

Note: Page citations above are from the reprint of the article whose front cover is pictured above.

Standing within “The Temple of Time”

Invented by Emma Willard (1787-1870). Published in 1846 by A.S. Barnes & Co., 51 John Street, New York. At the chart’s lower right, the famed educator of American women states its raison d’être:

“Those laws of mind by which not only the memory is assisted, but the intellect formed, have been regarded in this invention. The attempt to understand chronology by merely committing dates to memory, is not only painful, but it is as useless as to learn latitudes and longitudes without the study of maps. As in geography, the relation of any place to all other places is what is important to know; so in chronology, the relation which any given event bears to others constitutes the only useful knowledge. Whosever wishes, can here locate himself in any point of time, and see what characters are cotemporary [sic], what before, and what to follow. This saves great labor of thought, and may suggest new ideas, even to the learned.

By putting the course of time into perspective, the disconnected parts of a vast subject are united in one, and comprehended at a glance; — the poetic idea of “the vista of departed years”[*] is made an object of sight; and when the eye is the medium, the picture will by frequent inspection, be formed within, and forever remain, wrought into the living texture of the mind. If this be done by a design whose beauty and grandeur naturally attract attention, then the teacher or parent who shall place it before his pupils and children, will find that they will insensibly become possessed of an inner “Temple” in which they may, through life, deposit, in the proper order of time, the facts of history as they shall acquire them. This, we repeat, is as important to the student of time as maps are to the student of place. Nations are here exhibited both ethnographically and chronographically. With any of the most celebrated characters of the world, we may in idea stand within the “Temple,” and look back to the past, and forward to the future.”

  • “the vista of departed years” – A line from the poem “The Flight of Time” by John Lowe, published in Edinburgh in 1845.

Front cover: Willard’s Map of Time: A Companion to the Historic Guide. By Emma Willard. New-York, [1846]. Call number: (Ex) Item 5146637q

For more particulars on the Library’s significant holdings relating to the history of charts and tables of chronology as well as timelines, see the relevant entry in the Guide to Selected Special Collections.