University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Robbins Library

Volume XXXX • 1987-88
The Robbins Library

Rossell Hope Robbins

Rossell Hope Robbins was born in Wallasey, Cheshire, July 22, 1912, son of Rossell Casson Robbins, formerly of Liverpool, England, and Alice Eveline Hope Robbins, formerly of Kirkudbright, Scotland. He began his education at Wallasey Grammar School, 1921-30, then proceeded to the University of Liverpool, where in 1933, as a student of J. H. G. Grattan, he received with first class honors his B.A. in English Language and Literature. In 1934 he received his diploma of education from the School of Education, Liverpool.

During this period of his life Robbins also trained in music at the Matthay School of Music Liverpool Branch (1930-36), receiving his licentiate from the Guildhall School of Music London, in 1932. He was a member of the London Verse Speaking Choir under the direction of Marjorie Gullan from 1935-37. This early interest in music and verse has remained with him all his life. His dissertation and three of his earliest scholarly books dealt with the lyric in English, and, in 1961, Columbia University Press published his Early English Christmas Carols in a handsome gift edition with music illustrations, and an LP record. Robbins also has written on jazz and bop.

In 1934 Robbins was admitted to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, on an Open External Studentship to proceed to his doctorate. He was supported by a Wallasey Borough Research Scholarship and the University of Liverpool Graduate Scholarship. He received his Ph.D. in literature in 1937 as a student of G. G. Coulton. In that year he was awarded a Commonwealth Fellowship by the Harkness Foundation, which brought him to America. Here he continued his work on Middle English lyrics at New York University with Carleton Brown, work which is still acknowledged as the best of its kind.

In the next twenty-five years four books appeared which had their beginnings in his sojourn as a Commonwealth Fellow: The Index of Middle English Verse (with Carleton Brown; Columbia University Press, 1943); Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (Clarendon Press, 1952, 1955); Historical Poems of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (Columbia University Press, 1959); and the Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse (with John L. Cutler; University of Kentucky Press, 1965). By this time Robbins was recognized as the leading authority on the Middle English lyric and medieval English political and satirical verse. Many of his more than 200 articles and reviews were written during these years on those topics.

On June 9, 1939, Rossell married Helen Ann Mins, daughter of Henry Felix Mins and Elizabeth Lafell Mins, both of New York City. The wedding took place in the offices of the Modern Language Association of America in Greenwich Village. Rossell's friend and co-worker, the Reverend Carleton Brown, executive secretary of the Modern Language Association, performed the ceremony. Helen Ann was a high school teacher at that time. For nearly fifty years she has been a powerful intellectual force in Rossell's life, an aggressive thinker and a gracious hostess. Although she is now legally blind and severely afflicted with arthritis, she is, at the age of 87, still an energetic conversationalist with an acute memory. She is a voracious reader of books for the blind and tutors young people in conversational French.

On March 8, 1943, Robbins was inducted into the United States Army where he later served on the War Department Special Staff, Education and Information Division, at the Pentagon. During these years he wrote dozens of pamphlets and discussion guides on dealing with war prisoners and repatriation. His orientation programs for returning soldiers and information bulletins for occupation troops in Europe regarding the war trials at Nuremberg were designated mandatory reading for the American Army of Occupation in Germany. Prior to his own discharge from military service in 1946 his commanding officer, Colonel John D. P. Phillips, recommended him for the Legion of Merit for his work as writer for the Information and Education Headquarters of the European Theater.

After the war Robbins accepted a teaching position at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now the New York Polytechnic Institute) where he taught until 1954. During this time he published two books, an edition of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (1948) and The T S. Eliot Myth (1951; reprinted 1965). In 1955 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and retired from teaching to devote full time to his scholarship. In 1958 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, one of the half dozen American writers to be so honored. In 1959 he published The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, an enormously successful book which in 1984 was in its seventeenth printing. From 1958 to 1985 Rossell and Helen Ann had spent their summers at Cornell University, continuing their studies on witchcraft. Robbins wrote the 80 page introduction to the Catalogue of the Witchcraft Collection of the Olin Library, at Cornell University, later reprinted separately with 40 pages of illustrations as Witchcraft: An Introduction to the Literature (1978).

Between 1954 and 1969 Robbins enjoyed the life of an independent scholar, assisted by a grant-in-aid from the Modern Language Association, two American Council of Learned Societies grants, and a Ford Foundation grant as a visiting scholar at Dunster House, Harvard. He also occasionally accepted visiting assignments as visiting professor at University of North Carolina, Canada Council Professor at Mount Allisoun University of New Brunswick, Cooperative Program in the Humanities Professor at Duke University, Mrs. William Beckman Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, visiting professor at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, and as Regents Professor of the University of California tenable at Riverside.

In 1969 Robbins decided to return to teaching full time and accepted the position of International Professor at the State University of New York at Albany. This position was particularly attractive to him and Helen Ann because of its proximity to their home since 1941 at Katsbaan Onderheugel near Saugerties, New York, where they still live. In 1982 he became Professor Emeritus from Albany. One of the happiest moments of his recent years has been the receiving of the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, conferred upon him by Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York, in 1986. The citation praises his "refreshing balance between scholarship and humanism,"  his irrepressible zest for life, his sense of humor, his social concern, and his enduring scholarship. In the past decade he has had four festschrifts and honorary issues dedicated to his achievements.

The Rossell Hope Robbins Library

By 1970 Professor Robbins' personal library had grown to such a size that it could no longer fit into his Saugerties house. So, in that year, he had his house rebuilt with the whole of the second story reinforced and reconstructed into a large L-shaped room with shelving capacity for about 7,000 volumes. By this time his collection had become an obsession. Initially, his books reflected what he himself was writing about—medieval lyrics, witchcraft, carols, social and political history, medieval French literature. But now he began to collect more comprehensively, maintaining close contact with half a dozen book dealers in England and the United States who specialize in books on medieval topics. His goal was not so much to collect rare items as to put together in a single room all the works that a graduate student in English, history, or French, working on the High Middle Ages— especially thirteenth-, fourteenth-, and fifteenth-century England—would be likely to need.

By 1980 the collection had again begun to exceed the capacity of the Robbins' home. Robbins was subscribing to about forty journals and had accumulated a large number of multi-volume reference works. Moreover, he had, in fact, been able to purchase a number of quite rare items. The possibility of orphaning the bibliofamily he had so lovingly adopted over the years became too hideous to contemplate—death was bad enough—so he began to seek an institution to which he might give the library, along with a considerable endowment for its perpetual maintenance. Richard de Bury, Bishop of Durham in the early fourteenth century, wrote in his Philobiblon: "A library of wisdom is more precious than all wealth, and all things that are desirable cannot be compared to it. . . . Books are to be gladly bought and unwillingly sold. . . . They are worth all that thou hast." The good bishop's principles were Robbins' own. As he formalized the terms for the bestowal of his great treasure he drew up a few specifications to which he insisted the recipient institution must agree: 1) the collection must be kept intact, without selling or removing from the collection books duplicated by the institution's current holdings; 2) the collection must be housed in a single area, rather than scattered or merged with other holdings; 3) the collection must be non-circulating so that its holdings would always be available for use by researchers in the library; 4) the facility must be under regular attendance and open a reasonable number of hours a week so that scholars might count on the assistance that only a research library can give; 5) a Board of Stewards should be established to guarantee that the host institution will abide by its part of the agreement and continue to build upon the holdings with income from the endowment after the death of the Robbinses; 6) and, finally, the collection must bear the name of the donor.

When Robbins began looking for a host institution the collection was valued at about $400,000 and the endowment at about three quarters that amount. By 1988 the combined value of the collection and the endowment is about $1,000,000. Several institutions besides the University of Rochester expressed interest in the bequest: the Medieval and Renaissance Center at SUNY-Binghamton, the University of Colorado, Catholic University of America, Cornell, the University of Denver, the University of Kansas, the University of Melbourne in Australia, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and the English Faculty Library of Oxford, England. Robbins chose Rochester as the site for several reasons: he liked the several medievalists in the various departments of the humanities, he was impressed by the prospective facility which would house his books, he got on well with the staff of the Rush Rhees Library, and he was impressed by the manner in which the Development Office of the University conducted the negotiations. Moreover, the location was not too far from his home in Saugerties.

In 1982, following serious medical problems which left him in intensive care for ten weeks, he incorporated his library as a nonprofit organization which could conveniently be passed on to some other institution. In 1983 negotiations with the University of Rochester began in earnest. Initially the plan was to locate the facility in Morey Hall, the home of the English department and the Koller-Collins Graduate English Center. But that building was not constructed to support the weight of book stacks, so the decision was made, through the cooperation and ingenuity of James Wyatt, Director of University Libraries, to house both the Robbins and Koller-Collins collections on the fourth level of Rush Rhees. Colonel Donald Schaet, of the University of Rochester Development Office, played a key role in working out satisfactory agreements between all parties concerned, working closely with the lawyers of both sides, the English Department, Roger Lathan, Vice President and General Secretary of the University, President Dennis O'Brien, and Provost Brian Thompson, all of whom were by now quite enthusiastic about the possibilities of the project. The agreement for the removal of the collection from Saugerties was signed in 1984, and a paper transfer of the first portion of the Robbins books was made at that time. At the same time Helen Ann Robbins contributed $160,000 to the endowment, with about twice that sum to come upon the demise of the donors.

The actual transfer of Robbins' books occurred during the summer of 1987. The gift of the books themselves had been made specifically to the Department of English with the understanding that they would be part of the Koller-Collins Graduate English Center. The Department welcomed a large non-circulating collection such as this as a superb opportunity to enhance its graduate program and to facilitate the training of young medievalists. The breadth of the Robbins collection fostered interdisciplinary research, which the Department also hoped to encourage. Because it is now housed in the Rush Rhees Library, however, the collection is managed by that institution in consultation with the English Department and a Board of Stewards, appointed by the President of the University. The endowment is such that funds are available for perpetual purchasing of books to keep the library up to date and for the sponsoring of a pre-doctoral fellowship to support a woman scholar working on a Middle English dissertation. This fellowship, entitled the Helen Ann Mins Robbins Fellowship, will be awarded by the Board of Stewards to that woman applicant whose dissertation promises to make the most significant contribution to knowledge of the medieval period. The competition is to be international in scope and will begin upon the death of Helen Ann or at a prior time designated by the Robbinses.

Expansion of the Robbins Collection

During its first year at the University of Rochester the Robbins Collection has grown substantially and is now approaching 12,000 volumes and more than 6,000 off-prints and unbound periodicals. The University has generously agreed to match Robbins' money for book purchases up to $10,000 a year for the first five years. Robbins himself, as Curator, has remained in charge of most of the purchasing and since September 1987 has acquired 1,200 additional books, including a number of costly reference works, facsimile editions, art books, and manuscript catalogues. This year Robbins has strengthened, in particular, the holdings in Anglo-Saxon studies and Old French.

Books attract books, and the collection has been augmented also through a number of generous gifts by friends of the project. Last fall about 300 volumes on Old English were added to the collection from the personal library of the late Rowland L. Collins, a former Chairman of the English Department. Many of these items are personally inscribed by their authors or contain annotations by Collins, who was one of the leading Anglo-Saxonists in North America.

A second gift of considerable magnitude came from George Hardin Brown, of Stanford University. Brown's gift of about 250 scholarly off-prints consists mainly of a combination of three collections which were passed on to him by deceased friends in the English department at Stanford. The collection includes a large number of autographed items given to Arthur G. Kennedy (1880-1954), a distinguished medievalist, philologist, and grammarian at Stanford. Many of the items in Kennedy's collection came from the German philologist and Chaucerian Ewald Flugel. Kennedy himself did important work on Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, and Modern English grammar. One interesting item in the batch of Kennedy materials is the printed instructions to the compilers of the Tatlock and Kennedy Concordance to the Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, a pioneer volume among twentieth-century concordances. The instruction sheet is a rare document in the history of concordance making.

Brown's bequest includes two rare English grammars for secondary schools done by Kennedy for a school district in Spearfish, South Dakota, prior to completing his great work, Current English (New York, 1935). In addition to the Kennedy materials, Brown's gift also includes collections of off-prints gathered by his former colleagues Robert W. Ackerman and Donald R. Howard.

From a scholar's point of view, one of the interesting features of working in the Robbins Library is the sense of common enterprise and the interconnectedness of the greater community of medieval scholars over the past century which is evident in the inscriptions and marginalia of these particular books. The Library is designed for the working scholar, and it is amazing to find oneself working from the personal copies of admired scholars of other generations. The Robbins collection includes many books once owned by his friend J. A. W. Bennett of Cambridge, the Old French scholar from Edinburgh, M. Dominica Legge, and the Chaucer scholar from the University of Pennsylvania, Robert Pratt, to mention only a few. Many of these books are annotated by their original owners.

The Book Plates

The book plates for the Robbins Library were designed by Russell A. Peck, with the artistic assistance of Miriam Lapham and the calligraphy of Stella Kelly. Mrs. Kelly used the script of the Ellesmere manuscript of theCanterbury Tales as her model. The primary book plate is framed by the border design used prominently by Thomas Godfray in the printing of William Thynne's The Workes of Geffray Chaucer. Thynne's edition of 1532 was the first collected works of Chaucer to be published. The cum privilegio on the book plate is taken from Thynne's title page. The escutcheon, printed in red, represents Chaucer's coat of arms as depicted in John Stowe's edition of Chaucer's works in 1561 and in Thomas Speght's edition of 1598. The ar in Speght indicated argent (silver) and the g gules (red). All three of these editions are in the Robbins Library in facsimile.

The Library uses a second book plate to indicate books transferred into the Robbins collection from the Koller-Collins collection or from the Rush Rhees Library. This plate is based on the drawing of Chaucer's Clerk ("gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche") in the Manchester facsimile of the Ellesmere manuscript in the Rare Books Room of the Rush Rhees Library. The original manuscript is now in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. A third book plate is used to designate gifts of books to the Library from well-wishers. The design for this plate is based on a terracotta figure by an anonymous fourteenth-century artist of the Virgin Mary, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Mary is holding a book in her right hand, a sign that she is keeper of the Word, a benefactor indeed.

The Opening of the Robbins Library and the Koller-Collins Graduate English Center

The inauguration of the Robbins Library took place on September 16, 1987. The day of celebration consisted of several events: a sequence of talks in the lower level of the Interfaith Chapel during the afternoon; a banquet for distinguished guests following the talks, sponsored by the Medieval House; a reception in the new Koller-Collins Graduate English Center, sponsored by the Friends of the Rush Rhees Library; and the annual Metzdorf Lecture delivered in honor of the Robbins Library. After the lecture, the Provost gave a nightcap reception for visitors in the Rare Books Room of the Rush Rhees Library.

More than 200 people attended the afternoon lectures, including about seventy-five medievalists from other institutions in America, Great Britain, Canada, and Australia. The first speaker was Professor John Leyerle, from the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Study at the University of Toronto; Leyerle spoke on the topic "Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and the Wheel of Fortune." Malcolm B. Parkes, Keble College, Oxford, spoke second on "Living from Mouth to Hand: Developing Conventions of Written Language."  Francis Oakley, President of Wilhams College and Professor of History, was the final speaker, addressing the topic "Constance to 1688: The Vision of a Whig Pope."  (His essay, retitled "Constance and its Aftermath," appears on page 44 of this issue.) The Medieval House reception and dinner served 105 people, including out-of-town guests, selected Friends of the Library, and University of Rochester medievalists and dignitaries. The dinner was embellished by carol singing in honor of Professor Robbins and Helen Ann by local medieval faculty and their spouses, and toasts and speeches from the high table.

The Robert F. Metzdorf Lecture was given by Malcolm B. Parkes, on the topic "Book Provision and Libraries at the Medieval University of Oxford." (His essay appears on page 28 of this issue.) This event was held at 8:00 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Rush Rhees Library and was preceded by an academic procession, with music provided by the Eastman School of Music. The programs and fliers for these special events are on file in the archives of the Robbins Library, along with a photographic record of book displays and festivities.

The Decor of the New Graduate Center

During its first year the combined facilities of the Koller-Collins Graduate English Center and the Robbins Library have received heavy use, particularly as a study area for graduate students in English and history and for undergraduates working on medieval topics. The facility itself is one of the most attractive study areas on campus. In addition to gifts of books, the Center has attracted several gifts of art work. The most notable gift, a large oil painting by Honor√© Sharrer entitled the Judgment of Paris, depicts the three goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite in muliermorphic form enacting their separate versions of what they imagine to be alluring to the voyeuristic male judge who is himself something of an exhibitionist. The picture wittily satirizes male egotism as the women mock his expectations and thereby comically assert their independence. The painting was given to the Center in the spring of 1988 by George and Patricia Ford in memory of Nicholas and Olga Konraty. Olga Konraty, the original owner of the painting, taught German for many years at the Eastman School of Music and was herself a sculptor of considerable talent. One of her pieces may be seen in the sculpture court of the Memorial Art Gallery.

The Fords have also given a remarkable nineteenth-century copy in oil of Joseph Severn's portrait of John Keats in the National Gallery in London. George Ford was Chairman of the English department from 1960-72, during which time the graduate program in English was first developed at the University of Rochester. (His article on the history of the Koller-Collins Graduate English Center begins on page 18 of this issue.) The Pulitzer Prize winning poet and Professor Emeritus of the English department Anthony Hecht made a bequest in memory of James Rieger, a portion of which was used for the purchase of a fine nineteenth-century lithograph by R. Peale of Lord Bryon. Rieger had been for many years the University's principal English Romanticist. Sarah Collins has given a superb plaster cast of Alfred Lord Tennyson by W. O. Partridge. Several articles of furniture from Rowland Collins' ancestral home in Oklahoma are also on loan from Sarah, adding elegance to the foyer and mezzanine of the Center.

Over the past decade Jack Coughlin, a Massachusetts artist, has executed a series of lithographs and watercolors of British and American writers and, through the gifts of Marjorie Woods and Russell Peck of the English department, Anthony Hecht, John McElroy of the University of Arizona (in memory of Rowland L. Collins), and Nancy Buckett of the Oxford Gallery in Rochester, the Center displays several of the Coughlin portraits, including those of Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, T. S. Eliot, Flannery O'Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. Howard Horsford, Professor Emeritus and former Director of Graduate Study in English, has given on loan Coughlin's portrait of Herman Melville, and the English department is looking for donors for the Eugene O'Neill, W. B. Yeats, and Toni Morrison portraits, which we have not yet obtained.

Bruce Johnson, a former chairman of English, has given a fine ink drawing of William Blake by Leonard Baskin, and Jerry Wnuck has given two handsomely framed Blake prints of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims and of Spenser's Faerie Queen, which hang in the seminar room in memory of James Rieger. A few years ago Mrs. E. K. Brown, as part of her generous gift of Victorian and twentieth-century materials from the estate of her husband, presented the Department with an amusing nineteenth-century print from Vanity Fair (1871) which has been put up, along with a Max Beerbohm print (given by George Ford) of Robert Browning having tea with the Browning Society (both included in George Ford's article, pages 22 and 24). A large nineteenth-century photographic portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson hangs near the curator's desk. This picture had adorned the office of William Gilman, the founder of the Emerson journals project which was centered at the University of Rochester until Gilman's death in 1976. The picture had once belonged to Claude Bragdon, the Rochester architect.

An anonymous donor has given a double set of fourteen color etchings by a Hungarian artist, Adam Wurtz, entitled the Romeo and Juliet Suite. One set of this remarkable edition is displayed in the mezzanine above the seminar room. In the Robbins Library itself, ten reproductions from the Heidelberg anthology of love poetry (1315), a gift of Richard Kaeuper of the History department, are on display, along with several posters and a striking four-color brass rubbing of Sir Robert de Bures of Acton, Suffolk, a fourteenth-century knight, done by James Wyatt, the University's Director of Libraries, who has loaned the rubbing to the Library for an unspecified time.

The gracious environment of the Graduate English Center has made it a favorite place for conference meetings. During the spring semester of 1988 the Conference on Critical Theory, an ongoing conference designed by the English department primarily for its graduate students, held twelve of its Wednesday afternoon sessions there. And in April a conference entitled "History/Text/Theory: Reconceiving Chaucer," a conference which attracted scholars from throughout North America, held nine of its sessions in the facility.

The Administration of the Library

During the first eight months of its life at the University of Rochester the Robbins Library was attended by Elizabeth Gregory, a graduate student in English, who did a superb job in establishing policies for using the library and managing its staff and in working out procedures for receiving and cataloging books. Since August 1, 1988, the Librarian has been Alan Lupack, a medievalist with a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania. Lupack did his dissertation on diptych techniques of narrative in fourteenth-century English alliterative verse. He is presently the editor of the Arthurian journal Avalon to Camelot and the poetry magazineThe Round Table, which he founded. Lupack has been a bibliophile for many years and has one of the finest personal collections of Arthurian materials in North America. He is an active scholar and poet.


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