University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The University Library

Volume I · November 1945  ·  Number 1
The University Library

A university library is -- or should be -- the geographic and spiritual heart of the cultural life of a university. It should also be a center of cultural life for the whole community which it serves. That is what we hope the University Library is today, and what its supporters are determined to see that it becomes, to an even greater extent, in coming years.

There are special reasons for emphasizing the cultural importance of libraries, and particularly of university libraries, at this time. Society never needed more than at present what a good library has to contribute to scholarship, education, and the general welfare of the public. Tomorrow's need for what university libraries can contribute may be even greater. For two decades or more the minds of Americans have been almost universally concerned with other than cultural interests and advancement. Our rapid strides in science, technical progress, military mastery, social security, and "enlightened materialism" have not been balanced by equal gains in cultural or human understanding.

Depressions have naturally turned our thoughts and emphases upon immediate problems of individual and collective economic security. The World War and concern over its material aftermath have increased this emphasis upon vocationalism and immediacy. The remarkable developments in the sciences, laudable in themselves, have absorbed so much public interest and esteem that there has been little left for liberal culture and humane understanding. The ideas and values which have been and must continue to be the core of our civilization and our democracy have had relatively little attention in recent years. They are still respected, but more in remoteness and in theory than in practice and endeavor.

Schools and colleges, and even universities, reflect inevitably the attitude and values of society. Consequently, even within our educational institutions, which must be the traditional strongholds of humane culture, laboratories rival libraries, and an accelerated life distracts students from general reading, general culture, and even a visual acquaintance with a library stack. Under the influence of highly specialized programs, professional or pre-professional courses, technical or vocational ambitions, most undergraduates, graduate students, and even professors limit their use of the library to those books or collections bearing only upon their major interests. To such users, a library ceases to be the treasury of wisdom and enjoyment it should be, and becomes merely a place one visits for required reading or special consultation.

This is not as it should be. If this trend continues, colleges and universities will ultimately fail to produce men and women of wide understanding and sympathies, or scholars of broad cultural background, or even undergraduates who can truly be called educated. Many voices are now crying from high places for more balance, a greater sense of values, in American education. All thoughtful citizens hope their cry will be answered. One of the best answers lies in a return to the library, and a support of the interest and culture for which a good university library stands.

That is why "there are special reasons for emphasizing the cultural importance libraries at this time."

That is why I have acceded, though with a strong sense of my own inadequacy, to the flattering invitation of its editors to contribute an article to the first issue of this important new Bulletin. Any educational administrator with a trace of educational ideals or social responsibility (and some of us do try to preserve a little of both) would welcome such an opportunity to speak for the importance of libraries as the nerve centers of liberal education.

I use the term "nerve centers" deliberately, for a university library is more than a mere storehouse of books, or even of wisdom. A good library is an active and kinetic thing. There is nothing of a museum about the University Library; its extremely competent staff is constantly searching for new ways to serve not only students, teachers, and research scholars, but the general public as well. It is open to all comers who will make intelligent and responsible use of it. Through the extraordinarily wide dissemination of motion-picture films as well as books it has spread its lines of service out into small communities of Western New York. Through its research staff it is constantly finding answers and providing material for responsible inquirers of all sorts -- from a prominent citizen who wants accurate background knowledge for an important speech to an industrial research worker who wants to know in which foreign scientific periodical he can find an extremely specialized article bearing upon his professional work.

All kinds of libraries deserve public support, but a university library has well-grounded claims because of its special functions. Although it serves the public through its general collections, as freely as the public or school library, it can also perform services which no public library could be expected to supply. It has collections of scholarly works, of research materials, and of scientific periodicals which no school or public or purely undergraduate library could be expected to, or probably could afford to, provide. Perhaps even more important than this, a good university library possesses a staff especially trained to assist research workers, and to know where to find that one book, the existence of which few would realize. If such a book is so rare as not to be in the University Library, it can probably be secured on loan from some other institution. Librarians are working internationalists in the best sense of the word.

Behind the truly magnificent portico of Rush Rhees Library, but supplemented by excellent specialized libraries in its various schools, the University of Rochester has in recent years built up, both in aggregate of volumes and more importantly in selection of volumes, a major collection for educational, scholarly, scientific, and general use. Of equal importance to the books in the library is the quality of its staff, and here again, under the leadership of the distinguished University Librarian, we have been fortunate. Probably there are more people in other universities and cities than there are in Rochester who realize what a wealth of literary material over varied fields is now included in the University of Rochester's collections. It is, I take it, one purpose of this new Bulletin to bring these collections and their usefulness to wider public attention.

Our University Library already has many friends, as its extensive use and its recent important additions by gift both indicate. It deserves more friends, and will have them, as knowledge of its resources and services increases. It is my personal hope that the inauguration of this handsome little publication will soon lead to the formation of that most valuable of library assets, a well-organized, deeply-interested, and generously-supporting group of "Friends of the Library."

Some of these friends will wish to join the group simply because they love books; others because they wish to support at its most crucial point the elevation of public cultivation; and others still because of personal interest in some special field, such as local history, or rare printing, or medical collections. All will be more than welcome. And it is a happy fact that those who love libraries do not have to be millionaires to support them! They can contribute in many valuable ways: one Friend of the Library may have inherited family documents of historical or social importance which he may be glad to have safely preserved and wisely used in the Rush Rhees Library; another may be in possession of a few fine bindings or first editions; another may derive his pleasure from finding others who have something to contribute and leading them to the Library; still another (equally welcome) may be a Friend of the Library primarily as an intelligent and enthusiastic user of its collections. This is the way that libraries already distinguished become truly great. This is a way that the University Library, which now helps to preserve the culture of western civilization, may strengthen its resources not only in that field but as a center of the peculiar culture and tradition of Western New York.

I hope no one will interpret what I have written as an indication that the new Bulletin is intended to be a constant exhortation to prospective donors! Donors are nice people and we hope to see more of them, but if the University's libraries continue to serve scholarship and the public as well as they have done, society will inevitably give them increasing recognition and support. Our motives in distributing this Bulletin are several, and some of them are extremely human. We are really proud of the University's libraries, and would like a few discriminating people to know more about them. Our library committees and staff also anticipate the pleasure of attempting to put together an occasional publication of literary distinction and typographical charm. Such a bulletin cannot be distributed too widely, for reasons obvious to the more practical of our friends. In the final analysis, I think that our chief, though only half-admitted motive for producing this new Bulletin, is the pleasure we hope to have in preparing it, and hope to give by distributing it. Exponents of liberal culture have not had too much fun in recent years, and this may apply particularly to those who love and work in libraries. The arts and letters are intended to give pleasure, and their exponents are entitled to a little pleasure too! A culture which permitted no avocations or lighter moments would be a grim affair, and would probably end in the parochialism it would deserve. I can speak only for myself, but let me confess in this first issue that I view the endeavor of this new Bulletinwith more personal pleasure than professional design, and I wish its editors and its supporters all the satisfaction and success they richly deserve.