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A Million Volumes Strong
The Library Celebrates a Major Milestone
By Daria D'Arienzo
On April 23-24, 2004, the Amherst College Library marked the growth of its collection to more than a million volumes, a milestone in the life of the Library, which was started in 1821 when the College was founded. In 183 years, the Library has grown from a few shelves of classical and religious books in a room in South College to a dynamic institution that is an integral part of the academic life of the College.
The symbolic millionth acquisition was a small collection of letters written by James Merrill, Amherst Class of 1947, to his friend William S. Burford, Amherst Class of 1949, while they were both undergraduates. Several of the letters concern their joint editorship of the literary magazine The Medusa, but Merrill's comments range widely across literature, art, music, and philosophical reflection. They provide a snapshot of the young poet at a critical and formative time of his life. The acquisition of these letters was made possible by a gift in memory of James I. Merrill.
A spectacular red and white banner that welcomed patrons with "Celebrating 1,000,000 Volumes" was hung over the front doors for this special occasion. The banner was in place for National Library Week, April 19-23, 2004, which coincided with the Amherst millionth celebration.
The two-day event began with a festive reception on Friday, April 23, for all former and current library staff. Everyone joined in decorating Frost with colorful balloons and plants in containers made from recycled book jackets.
The celebration featured displays showcasing the Merrill letters and other materials chosen to represent the Library's collections. Three handsome keepsakes were produced in conjunction with the events, in addition to the programs created for the millionth volume presentation ceremony and the symposium "Remembering James Merrill at Amherst." John Lancaster, Curator of Special Collections, designed all the pieces to create a complementary package. "An Historical Chronology of the Amherst College Library" was the work of Daria D'Arienzo and the Archives and Special Collections. "A Poem by James Merrill" presented a facsimile draft manuscript of a sonnet and sketches, including a self-portrait, written while Merrill was a student at Amherst. D'Arienzo discovered the previously unpublished draft and sketch and provided the introductory note for the keepsake. "Poems by Amherst Students" was the work of the Friends of the Library Student Advisory Committee. At the invitation of the group, 15 students provided original poems for the 38-page keepsake. In her introduction, D'Arienzo noted that "the hope was that the invitation would encourage students across disciplines to think about the power of poetry, to encourage them to write poetry, and to provide a wider audience for their works."
Afternoon festivities commenced with an all-student reception with music by "AK junior's fantastical jazz machine." Students and other members of the College community enjoyed the upbeat music, and the band itself was having such a good time that they played twice as long as planned. To further entice the students to come into the Library for the celebration (but really as a preservation measure to control spills in the Library), the Friends of the Library funded a tasteful, non-spill coffee mug designed specifically for this celebration; one was given to each student who attended.
Following on a College tradition of calling the community together by tolling bells, the afternoon's formal ceremonies began with a selection of bell music played on the Stearns Steeple carillon by Robert Barney, the Director of Music at the Trinity Episcopal Church of Concord, Massachusetts. Librarian of the College Willis E. Bridegam welcomed the overflow crowd to the ceremony, which was held in the spacious main lobby of the Frost Library. Former U.S. Poet Laureate (and Robert Frost Library Fellow) Richard Wilbur '42 read his recent poem "Blackberries for Amelia" as an invocation. This provided a noteworthy continuity, as Wilbur had also spoken at the dedication ceremonies for the Robert Frost Library in 1965.
Frederick T. Griffiths, Associate Dean of the Faculty and the Class of 1880 Professor of Greek and Professor of Women's and Gender Studies, spoke on behalf of the College.
He paid tribute to a library that remained in contact with the spirit in which it had developed and cared for its collections and patrons over time, despite the changes in the size and nature of the collections and services. Offering the sonnet by Michael Kohl '03 entitled "On Submitting a Poem at the Last Minute for Frost Library's Millionth Volume Celebration" (from the student poetry keepsake) as an example, Griffiths said he was struck by the fact that the Library was inspiring, and in this case inspired poetry. He used Henry Ward Beecher's (1834) reserved snowy white owl—Athena's bird, for the Athenian Society—as a totem for the day's events. He proposed it as a symbol of the spirit of the libraries of those early student literary societies that fostered the exploration and inspiration of literature, saying:
What I love about this celebration is how we honor the compact that holds us together as a community, the compact that we do not aim to outgrow ourselves. This wonderful partnering of the library, the students, the faculty, and the Friends stays alive and vibrant by the common recognition that we're not trying to outgrow ourselves.
The Library Griffiths loves remains a place for people and for books. Here one can still touch those books carefully collected over time and you can also touch and access the new media and technologies that have been added over the years, without losing the spirt of the Library. He concluded
One of the pleasures of my time here has been to watch the growing research library become the brilliant teaching library that makes poetry happen, that makes education happen, that makes Amherst happen.
Will Bridegam then described the millionth acquisitions. He started by putting to rest the rumor, repeated for more than a hundred years, that the students who left Williams College in 1821 for Amherst brought books from the Williams library to start the Amherst College Library. Historical records confirm that they brought no stolen books. Bridegam went on to quote College historian W.S. Tyler, who described the early library as
containing a few theological and miscellaneous books, presented chiefly by ministers, collected in a chamber at Mrs. Montague's and deposited first in a single case in the entry of South College.
from that modest beginning, the Amherst College Library has developed into one of the largest and best liberal arts college libraries in the country. Today, it supports a broad curriculum and diverse faculty research interests.
Bridegam further noted that "the nature of the Library's collection has changed over the years, and especially during the last 25 years."
As a way to acknowledge the evolution of materials that are collected by the library, a variety of additions to the collection was featured, besides the symbolic Merrill-Burford correspondence:
- a gift from the Friends of the library titled "The American Periodical Series Online," an on-line, full-text database;
- the AMICO Library, a digital on-line resource presenting more than 100,000 works in the collections of the Art Museum Image Consortium;
- a gift of a DVD of the feature film "Chicago" by the Class of 2006;
- an institutional membership in the Public Library of Science, the innovative, non-profit internet and electronic publishing venture founded by Harold Varmus '61;
- a gift from the Friends of the Library, The Tiger's Eye, a journal of art and literature noted for its exquisite reproductions and elegant layout;
- a compact disc of a 1938 performance of Verdi's opera Otello, featuring Giovanni Martinelli and Lawrence Tibbett. This is a re-engineered recording from a collection of more than 10,000 music CDs given by Father Richard Mietzelfeld;
- a rare and significant Merrill item, one of the most highly sought after volumes of modern poetry, given by Friends Chairman Emeritus, Jack W. C. Hagstrom '55: Jim's Book: A Collection of Poems and Short Stories, privately printed in 1942, one of approximately 200 copies. James Merrill's father, Charles E. Merrill '08, had the collection of his son's early work printed as a surprise when his son was sixteen. This copy is inscribed to the donor by the poet.
Samuel B. Ellenport '65, Chairman of the Friends of the Amherst College Library, then presented to Will Bridegam the main gift, the Merrill-Burford letters in an elegant leather box. (Photo credit: Frank Ward)
Ellenport stated: "This is a true milestone" and added "Milestones are meant to be marked." He quoted Victor Hugo, saying "Libraries are an act of faith," continuing:
We have faith in our Library as a repository, as a resource, as a symbol of that knowledge which has come before and of discoveries yet to be realized.
This exchange marked the symbolic millionth accession to the Amherst College Library.
William H. Pritchard '53, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, gave the principal address.
Despite his opening disclaimer of having "absolutely nothing of value to contribute to the meaning of the Millionth Book," Pritchard's own thoughts about libraries and stories about his experiences with this library in particular were enlightening. He started by describing the advice he gave to the students in his recent first-year course "Novels, Plays and Poems" when overcome by "the impulse to convey some good advice, the wisdom of experience" for the upcoming interterm. After a litany of "don'ts" he advised "hanging out at Frost" to engage in that most wonderful of all library experiences, "browsing."
For Pritchard, Randall Jarrell captured the essence of libraries when he wrote:
Sitting at a library table, a student is at the center of a spider web whose strands go out to everything that people have done or wished that they could do, thought or felt or wanted.
Connecting this to his own life, Pritchard went on to describe one October Friday night in his sophomore year when—by browsing the 804 section in Converse Library—he discovered T. S. Eliot's The Sacred Wood: Essays in Poetry and Criticism (1920). It was the start of a life-long habit. He was into Jarrell's library web.
Pritchard followed this by describing the Library assignment experience of his English 1 freshman composition students, when he taught the course with Theodore Baird early in his Amherst career. Challenged with the proposition "Chaos is silent, but order must speak," students were asked to find an "object" in the Library without using language or speaking and to have that experience of just knowing where something is. The assignment was to look at the written account and to describe the kind of "order" made in the midst of the chaos of the process and to contemplate if this was "a better way of talking?" Pritchard admitted that he had been as uncertain as his students.
In closing Pritchard said: This has been a brief attempt to describe two library experiences of more than ordinary interest in which, to recapitulate Jarrell's words, I felt "the strands go out to everywhere."
The ceremonies ended with an invitation to enjoy the reception, exhibitions and database demonstrations that followed in Frost. For the members of the Friends and other special friends of the library, festivities continued with a celebratory reception and dinner in the Lewis-Sebring dining room. Friends Chairman Sam Ellenport thanked the guests for their devotion to the Library and for sharing in the celebration of this milestone.