University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Development of University Research Collections

Volume XXVI · Autumn-Winter 1970-71 · Numbers 1 & 2
Speeches at the Dedication of Rush Rhees Library

On the following pages, the Editors of the Library Bulletin are pleased to reprint the three speeches given at the time of the Dedication of Rush Rhees Library, April 23 and 24, 1970. The speakers were John G. Lorenz, Deputy Librarian of Congress; Gordon N. Ray, President, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation; and Rutherford D. Rogers, University Librarian, Yale University.

Mr. Lorenz' subject was the research library and the community. Mr. Ray spoke on the development of university research collections in universities today, and Mr. Rogers spoke on university libraries in the 1970's.

The Development of University Research Collections


The dedication of a major library addition is an important event in the annals of any university, and at a university like Rochester, where the sciences have been more strongly emphasized than the humanities, it assumes added importance as an earnest endeavor of the University’s renewed dedication to the pursuit of excellence throughout the whole spectrum of knowledge. In saying this I am of course stressing the research as opposed to the service aspect of the new library, its use for the support of scholarship as well as the implementation of teaching, and it is to this function that I propose to address my brief remarks today.

The American research library in the year 1970 is an institution characterized, to use Balzac’s antithesis, by both splendors and miseries. I say "splendors," because research libraries have never before enjoyed the prestige or attracted the attention that now comes their way. With the growth of the country’s scholarly establishment they are now of importance to several times the number of faculty members and students who used them intensively in the past, and in consequence no post is subject to more pressures or more difficult to fill with the right man than that of the director of libraries in a university. Moreover, the flurry of alarm caused by the temporary ascendancy of McLuhanism a few years ago has died down. Presumably even the most budget-minded university administrator must by now be persuaded that books are not likely to be replaced by technological devices for a long time to come, and that, consequently, libraries as traditionally organized will continue to be needed.

I have to add "miseries" to "splendors" because the very prosperity I have been describing has made research libraries the target for a swarm of critics, who complain waspishly about lack of space, deficiencies in collections, failures in service, and a hundred other matters. Indeed, the life of the director of libraries in a university is now almost as turbulent as that of the president himself. Nor can he any longer even assume that the buildings and collections for which he is responsible are reasonably secure; recent events have shown that their destruction par le fer et par le feu is by no means outside the range of possibility.

What are the prospects for success should the University of Rochester make a concerted effort to upgrade its research collections to a point where they will be worthy of the building designed to house them? In all candor I have to say that the picture is not a bright one. To begin with, it must be pointed out regretfully that compared with research libraries in institutions of equivalent standing, the University of Rochester, despite notable strength in musical manuscripts and the history of medicine, the Seward and Dewey papers, and good if scattered literary holdings, is in a sense less well off now than it was in 1948. In that year the famous R. B. Adam collection of the books, manuscripts, and autograph letters of Dr. Samuel Johnson and his circle, which had been on deposit at Rochester for thirteen years, was sold to Mr. and Mrs. Donald F. Hyde. The world of scholarship did not lose by this transaction. The Adam Collection, greatly extended by subsequent purchases, has ever since been one of the chief centers of Johnsonian research in its new location at Four Oaks Farm in New Jersey, and its former curator, Dr. Robert F. Metzdorf, has had a career in the antiquarian book world as distinguished as it has been useful. In seeking a nucleus today for the development of its research collections such as the R. B. Adam collection might once have provided, the University of Rochester will find many obstacles in its path. Perhaps I can best illustrate them by some personal reminiscences of the antiquarian book world then and now, reminiscences for which I shall not apologize, since when Mr. George Ford some months ago invited me to speak on this occasion, he suggested that they might form the main subject of my remarks. Though they relate to a particular area of collecting for research purposes, they are reasonably representative, I believe, of what has happened throughout the whole field. At least they will show with some vividness what could once be readily done in building a research library -- and what now can hardly be done at all!

In 1948 research libraries still had a bad press. The great postwar impetus towards the expansion of university facilities, staff, and enrollment, particularly for the accommodation of returning war veterans, meant that quantity rather than quality was the primary goal of higher education. The acting president of the University of Chicago was applauded when in 1951 he included among his "Ten Commandments for College Presidents" the admonition: "Thou shalt not covet . . . to have the largest number of unused books in your library."1  Nevertheless, university budgets increased substantially every year to take care of increased enrollments, and after the books and periodicals needed primarily for teaching had been purchased, there was usually some small change among library funds for research materials. It was under these circumstances that as head of the English department at the University of Illinois during the years following 1950 I made a concerted effort to build up that institution’s holdings in 19th- and 20th-century English literature. I was promised a few thousand dollars a year, with the possibility of occasional larger sums for collections of particular interest.

Here is how I described what I was able to do in an article for the Book Collector some years ago:

My first objective was to bring the Sadleir collection [of nineteenth century English fiction] to Urbana. After prolonged negotiations I was finally defeated in my effort by friendly rivals at the University of California at Los Angeles. Yet this setback did not prevent me from pushing ahead with my general plan, and I had good luck in acquiring other large collections for the University: the Bentley papers (some 12,000 letters and manuscripts) in 1951; the Grant Richards papers (some 15,000 letters to Richards and 45 volumes of copies of his replies) in 1952; the Tom Turner library (some 8000 books) in 1953; and the H. G. Wells papers (some 60,000 letters and manuscripts) in 1954.

Of far more significance to the growth of the Library’s resources for scholarly study, however, was the programme of steady buying which I developed. The staff provided me with a copy of the third volume of the Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, the volume covering the 19th century, marked with the Library’s holdings. To this were added photographic copies of acquisition cards for books not listed in CBEL. With these materials and a sheaf of mimeographed instructions for shipping and billing, all compactly stored in a portable case, I toured England by car for five happy summers between 1951 and 1957 buying books for the Library. Dealers [throughout the country] . . . came to expect my visits. When I was not in England, I carefully checked their catalogues, which they airmailed to me in Urbana. The result was a continuous flow of books to the Library, totalling several thousand volumes each year. On the average these books cost less than the expense of getting them catalogued and on the Library’s shelves.2

All this was possible because at the time no wide and steady demand for old books existed. The antiquarian book market operates under peculiar conditions. An out of print book seems common if there are five copies available and no buyers; it seems rare if there are five copies available and ten buyers. In the early 1950s it was assumed that England had an endless supply of private libraries which as they came to be offered for sale would ensure a continuing flow of just the volumes which might currently be needed. Institutional buying was still languid, and private collectors, pampered by the wide availability of desirable items, felt no urgency about filling the gaps on their shelves. The result was a positive glut of old books. Established London houses like Maggs and Quaritch maintained a high level of prices, but their sales suffered in consequence. Often an equivalent copy of a given title could be found in the shop of a minor dealer for a fourth or a fifth of the price demanded by these giants. Among marginal dealers, indeed, a kind of sauve qui peut was in progress. Desperate for funds, they were eager to sell their wares at any price. Except perhaps in the later nineteen-thirties, never had conditions been so favorable for an assiduous and wide-ranging buyer.

Most English towns of importance then had their well-stocked bookshops, and I can associate memories of collecting triumphs with establishments from Penzance to Aberdeen. I think, for instance, of a shop in the former town, a rambling building of many rooms, all of them in those remote days filled with old books. As I made my way through the premises, I came on an apartment about twenty-five by fifteen feet in which every wall was lined with shelves and every shelf was filled with "three-deckers," that is to say three-volume novels of the Victorian period. They were almost entirely by minor authors, and their condition left a good deal to be desired. But when the proprietor answered my inquiry concerning price with the remark that, since he really needed the space for other books, he would be glad to get rid of them at sixpence a volume, I saw my way to making what I still regard as the most magnificent gesture in my collecting experience. I said: "Send us the room!"

The time at my disposal is limited, however, and I can best spend it not on further flamboyant anecdotes, but by describing two bookshops among the many which were fixed points of call for me at that lucky period. (I pass by my favorite of them all, Mr. Norman Colbeck’s house in Bournemouth, because I have already dealt with it on another occasion.) For the first of my examples I have chosen the shop of Lowe Brothers in Birmingham. This large emporium was located on a busy street in the center of the city. Its proprietor was old Mr. Lowe, a grim, laconic, little man even then in his late seventies, who was assisted by his son, called "young Ted," though he too was of mature years. Outside was the clash and roar of Birmingham traffic, inside tens of thousands of volumes gleaned over sixty years from the best private libraries in the midlands. Mr. Lowe was a man of large capital (he was rumored to have invested judiciously in Birmingham real estate) and strong competitive spirit who also had a nice taste in fine books. He was the bookseller usually called in by solicitors in the area when settling estates, and he ruthlessly outbid his rivals at regional sales. His shelves were filled with first editions, reference works, illustrated books, and sets, often in old morocco. The standard of condition was high, and at least by intention so were the prices. But in so large a stock little attention could be given to individual books, and the careful searcher was rewarded by copies whose special interest, whether through their associations or their bibliographical points, had not been duly noticed, as well as "sleepers" in the form of books which fell outside the scope of Mr. Lowe’s expertise. Moreover, though Mr. Lowe was patently one of the monarchs of the trade, he did not altogether ignore the humble buyer. "Waste not, want not" was his motto. When I first visited his shop in the nineteen-thirties, there were half-crown, shilling, and sixpenny tables inside the front door, and twopenny barrows outside. A book would make its way down the scale, but even if it remained unsold at twopence, its usefulness was not at an end. It then went to the cellar to augment the fuel supply. It is appalling to think of the thousands of second, third and tenth editions—now urgently sought for textual study—that thus perished in the flames. Familiarity with Mr. Lowe’s stock gave me a kind of touchstone in these years. If a seeming rarity was offered me at an excessive price elsewhere, I would refuse it on the assumption, which generally proved correct, that I could pick it up more reasonably the next time I visited Birmingham.

My second example is Hall’s Bookshop on the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells. This charming establishment with its immensely high ceiling and its book-lined staircase and balconies was administered by the genial Mr. Harry Pratley, whose beaming countenance and engaging manners made him a favorite with the gentry who found Tunbridge Wells an agreeable old-world retreat after the alarms and excursions of active life. Mr. Pratley paid meticulous attention to the requirements of the elderly ladies among his customers, taking endless pains to find the obscure volumes of memoirs in which they showed a special interest or just the editions that they desired of Mrs. Gaskell’sCranford or Miss Mitford’s Our Village, and indeed his shop was a happy hunting ground for inexpensive books generally. But he was also one of the most expert judges in England of a rare book. Occupying the same favored position in the southern counties as Mr. Lowe did in the midlands, but substituting urbanity for aggressiveness in his mode of procedure, he gathered in hundreds of choice volumes every year. My annual visit to his "reserve," the area in the basement where his purchases were laid out for examination and pricing before being exposed to public view, brought many remarkable acquisitions to the University of Illinois. Some of the finest items, it is true, went home to Mr. Pratley’s private collection, but enough were left to provide God’s plenty for his favored clients.

I had perforce to stop my summer buying tours when I became provost of the University of Illinois in 1957. My vacations were cut to one month, and it was my custom to take even this brief period during the football season. But in any event the halcyon years for the buyer of antiquarian books were drawing to a close. There was a new spirit abroad among American universities. The launching of Sputnik I by the U. S. S. R. in 1957 had given impetus to a drive towards excellence in higher education, especially in its scientific areas, but to a degree throughout the whole university. As quality came to be emphasized in the academy, library budgets soared, and institution after institution decided that it too must have research collections in what previously had been primarily a service library. With regard to nineteenth- and twentieth-century English books and manuscripts the entrance into the field of the University of Texas with a budget for purchases that ran as high as $4,000,000 a year totally altered the picture. More recently British and Commonwealth institutions have also become vigorous buyers. Private collectors fell gradually into a "last chance" frame of mind, in which they eagerly snatched up the good things that were offered to them lest they never see their like again. Prices soared. When Major Jack Abbey sold his collection at Sotheby’s between 1965 and 1967, his rule of thumb was that if he had owned a book for twenty years, it should be worth ten times what he paid for it; if for ten years, five times what he paid for it. Booksellers’ stocks dried up, and they were no longer readily replenished, since significant private owners found it more profitable to dispose of their collections at Sotheby’s or Christie’s than to sell them to dealers. Within fifteen years the antiquarian book market moved from a state of glut to a state of extreme scarcity.

It would be almost pointless now to embark on a buying expedition through the provincial English bookshops, such as I regularly made in the early 1950’s, though I see that an enterprising London firm now offers a guided tour of this sort. The books are simply no longer there. Consider, for example, the current state of the two firms which I have described to you. Lowe Brothers has removed from central Birmingham to suburban Moseley, and the younger Mr. Lowe, who succeeded to the management on the death of his father a few years ago, contents himself with opening his shop to occasional old-time customers a few days a year. For tax reasons it would be pointless for him to net more than a few thousand pounds annually, and the value of the books on his shelves increases more rapidly than any other investment he might find. So he devotes most of his time to attending the cricket matches within driving range. Mr. Pratley has retired from Hall’s Bookshop. His successor, the excellent Miss Bateman, had some nice books for me the last time I was in Tunbridge Wells (though I no longer buy for the University of Illinois, I continue to add to my private collection), but I suspect that they were provided by Mr. Pratley from his private horde in anticipation of my visit.

This is the unpromising picture that faces the University of Rochester as it considers how best to develop the research resources of its library in the year 1970. Yet it remains imperative, I think, that the attempt be made. Books are not likely to become more available, nor are prices likely to decline. Bleak as today’s prospects are, they will be bleaker next year, and bleaker still the year after that. Perhaps the best solution would be to place increasing reliance for general coverage on the Five Associated University Libraries, a group in which Rochester has joined forces with Binghamton, Buffalo, Cornell, and Syracuse, while pursuing with assiduity certain collecting areas in which Rochester faculty members have a particular stake. As an outsider, I have no way of knowing what these might be. But it occurs to me, as an example, that the outstanding holdings in the history of photography at George Eastman House and in the small but interesting Walter Sage Hubbell collection of books illustrated by photographs which Dr. Metzdorf is forming for the University itself might be supplemented by assembling materials documenting and exampling the history of book and magazine illustration in the western world during the last two centuries. This is a field, only beginning to be explored in detail, for which materials are abundant and except for some "high spots" not very expensive. Its importance for the understanding of art and literature and of the history of styles in which both meet on common ground is only beginning to be recognized. At any rate, I am sure that all of the friends of Rochester gathered here today wish the University well in its collecting efforts.


  1. Newsweek, 20 April 1951, p. 84.
  2. "A Nineteenth Century Collection," Book Collector (Spring, 1964), p. 37.


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