University of Rochester Library Bulletin: President Rhees and the Library

Volume I  ·  June 1946  ·  Number 3
President Rhees and the Library

The name of Rush Rhees inscribed on the library building at the River Campus was not of his own choosing. In fact, he vigorously objected to it; only the united stand of the Board of Trustees succeeded in overcoming his opposition. With scaffolding already in place, outlines traced on the wall, and stonecutters ready to begin carving the name of The University of Rochester Library over the doorway, the architects' head draftsman was finally instructed to alter his design for the lettering to Rush Rhees Library. That decision is now vindicated; posterity will be reminded who was the real refounder of this University.

A library is primarily a book collection, only secondarily the building which houses it. Not stone and brick but the treasury of learning is what the name stands for. Rush Rhees from his arrival in 1900 to his retirement in 1935 steadily maintained before the Board of Trustees the fundamental importance of this reference library. There were only 37,000 volumes when he came, many of them public documents, duplicates, and gifts of doubtful value. The backward state of the Library in 1900 was no fault of previous administrations or of college benefactors. The building, erected at large expense by Hiram Sibley in the seventies, was at that time more than adequate for housing the books brought over from Anderson Hall in 1877, and was later improved by the donor's son. It had room for expansion, for the third floor was still used as a geological and zoological museum until completion of the Eastman Building in 1906.

President Rhees found that the management under a Library Committee of which Professors Morey, Burton, and Hoeing were successively chairmen was efficient and progressive, but hampered by lack of funds. In earlier days, during President Anderson's administration, the Library though small was well known for Professor Otis H. Robinson's pioneer experiments in improving card catalogues and in loose-leaf indexing of periodicals and essays before the days of Poole's and Fletcher's indexes. That story is well told by the late Donald B. Gilchrist in his "History of the University of Rochester Libraries," reprinted in 1937 from volume XVI of the Rochester Historical Society Publications.

During the first fifteen years of the Rhees administration the committee method of management continued so far as book purchasing and circulation were concerned. Routine library work was still done, as it had been since 1880, by Assistant Librarian Herman K. Phinney and his assistants. They worked long hours, endured many inconveniences, and received few thanks from anybody. Control of disturbing conversation, detective work in running down lost and stolen volumes, and trying in vain to curb the annoying practice of scribbling in book margins, kept the staff too busy to bother much about larger problems of symmetrical development and educational efficiency.

President Rhees tolerated these trivial annoyances and looked ahead for major developments which he hoped for and expected. He succeeded in increasing book funds by means of various gifts from alumni and trustees. He so heartily welcomed the continued interest in the Library of Mr. Hiram W. Sibley, son of the donor of Sibley Hall, that the Sibley music collection begun in 1902 was housed in that building until the erection of the Eastman School of Music. This Sibley Music Library, still a part of the University Library system in its own building in Swan Street, was in the first decade of the century the most distinctive unit in Sibley Hall. Its importance was less recognized at the time by undergraduates or even by most faculty members than by the music-loving public. Occupying several alcoves in the southwestern corner of Sibley Hall, those costly scores of symphonies, chamber music, operas, musical biographies, and technical treatises made for eccentric dilettantes an oasis of art in a desert of science. The writer still recalls how forty years ago, sitting in that quiet window corner overlooking the elms, he used to read the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner with the secret delight of cerebral audition. He blessed Mr. Sibley for those blissful hours, stolen from correcting freshman themes to which he reluctantly returned. President Rhees, also a musical amateur, never blamed anybody for wasting time on music, or on any other beautiful, useless, and immortal thing.

During those early years President Rhees also encouraged the interest in the University Library of two well-to-do, non-resident trustees, Mr. Francis R. Welles and Mr. Charles A. Brown. They gave to the Library many thousands for books, and their names are now perpetuated in the Welles-Brown Room at the River Campus. In later years Mr. Brown gave also his fine autograph collection, now an important source for literary and historical research, as indicated by Dr. Robert F. Metzdorf's annotated catalogue. Likewise it was early in the Rhees administration that Mr. E. G. Miner of the Board of Trustees began his gifts of rare books which have continued ever since, and add each year to the treasures of our Library. Rush Rhees had the faculty of winning friends for the Library by his knowledge of bibliography, his love for first editions, his zeal for expanding special fields beyond obvious needs of instruction, his wide outlook toward the unknown future. In those days of small things he quietly led the way from Minora to Meliora.

In 1915 the appointment of Mr. James A. McMillen as the first full-time librarian began a new era. Three major problems of policy then confronted the President and the Library Committee: (1) thorough overhauling of the whole collection to eliminate useless duplicates and deadwood; (2) improvement in educational service by appointment to the staff of assistants trained in library schools; (3) consideration of reclassifying and recataloguing the Library. Mr. McMillen was succeeded in 1919 by the late Donald B. Gilchrist, during whose twenty years' administration the entire institution was transformed. To the three problems above named many more were added as soon as plans for the River Campus began to be considered. In all these matters President Rhees, always a member of the Library Committee and responsible to the Trustees for financial commitments, was vitally concerned.

When it became evident in 1921 that the College for Men would be moved to the River Campus and a new University Library building would be erected there, years of preliminary investigation were at once undertaken. The old classification of the Library, devised by Professor Morey a generation earlier, had become obsolete and inadequate for an expanding collection. In public library administration at that time the drift was all toward the Dewey Decimal Classification, but after careful study by Mr. Gilchrist the administration decided to adopt the Library of Congress Classification. The entire Library was recatalogued before the new building was begun. Extensive plans were also made for building up an adequate reference library for the College for Women after removal.

In planning the new building with its tower bookstack President Rhees took a personal interest. The first problem to be decided was between centralization under one roof of the main collection or scattering reference books and periodical sets among department libraries. This involved wide inquiry among other expanding university libraries. Another major question was how the future extension of the building could be provided for. Vacant space in the upper part of the tower for additional bookstacks would serve for many years to come, but beyond that vertical expansion further horizontal enlargement might some day be needed. An eminent landscape architect appointed early in the River Campus development to scrutinize and criticize tentative building plans wrote to President Rhees:

I wonder whether on the basis of the plan for the library and its future extension it would not be possible to devise a series of successive masses which, merely as masses and almost regardless of detail, would at every stage of expansion of the library present an impressive and beautiful composition as seen from a distance in the direction opposite to that facade of the building which is designed to be seen intimately from the quadrangle.

That this wise advice was disregarded must have been due solely to economy. The eastern half of the building as originally planned was not then needed for library purposes, and is not now. But when the time comes, as it may, when administrative offices not only of the College for Men but perhaps of the whole University have to be removed from Morey Hall and Prince Street, the parking lot behind Rush Rhees Library may be the place for such a building, completing plans still waiting. Then the architecture will be worthy of the man.

President Rhees had written in earlier years concerning the uncompleted Kendrick Hall dormitory on the old campus with its blank end walls, "If the unfinished building seems an inadequate memorial to so great a name, its unfinished character will serve as a confession that the great name calls for early completion of the whole building."

If this was true of Kendrick Hall - still incomplete after thirty-three years - how much more of Rush Rhees Library. No greater honor could now be done to the memorable name which the Trustees gave it than to make it symmetrical, like his character; facing east for sunrise, west for evening; stately at arrival and departure; foursquare to all the winds.