University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Koller-Collins Graduate English Center, A History

Volume XXXX • 1987-88
The Koller-Collins Graduate English Center: A History

A truism of academic life is that the excellence of any program for the Ph.D. degree depends upon the excellence of the students enrolled in it. As a result, Directors of Graduate Studies, in their search for the most desirable candidates, seem to operate like talent scouts for a football team. And once the promising candidates have been identified, the process of wooing them commences, a process that must rely heavily on the availability of funds for fellowships. Other inducements, however, can also play an important part in affecting a candidate's choices.

At Rochester, it has been our good fortune to have such a special inducement available, consisting of a collection of some 6,000 volumes, housed in what is now known as the Koller-Collins Graduate English Center. This Center is located on the fourth floor of Rush Rhees Library in conjunction with the beautiful setting of the Rossell Hope Robbins Library. So far as I know, no other English department in America has such an attractive facility for graduate study. It has indeed become a major drawing card for our program.

The story of how this Center came into existence is eminently worth telling, especially as this year marks its thirtieth birthday. Curiously enough, the ultimate progenitors of the Center were the Russian scientists who succeeded in launching Sputnik, the first space rocket, on October 4, 1957, to the consternation and shame of the American establishment. Education—inadequate education, that is—was blamed for our country's being so far behind in technology, and, to correct the deficiencies, Washington passed important legislation to bolster higher education, not only in the sciences but in some other areas as well. This was the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), passed on September 2, 1958.

The timing of Russia's Sputnik was extraordinarily fortuitous in its effects on Rochester's English department. For several years previously, some of its members had been urging an expansion of its commendable M.A. program so as to offer training for the Ph.D. as well. By 1957, a small number of candidates had been enrolled, and by 1959, two had completed their degrees. This was at least a beginning, but if the initiative was to be sustained it was obvious that radical transfusions (monies that is to say) would be required to keep the new program nourished.

Thus the NDEA announcements seemed almost heaven sent, for Washington's policy (an unusually innovative one) was to offer support for worthy new programs rather than for programs already well established such as at Yale or Chicago. We were thus in an ideal position to make a persuasive presentation of our needs. Our proposal, concocted with the assistance of Bernard Schilling, the Director of Graduate Studies, was warmly received in Washington, and we were awarded funds to appoint four NDEA fellows. By fall of 1962 we had eleven fellows enrolled in different years of the program.

What these awards involved, at least in the early years of the NDEA, requires to be spelled out. Each successful recipient of a fellowship was assured of paid-up tuition and a generous monthly stipend for a three-year period. Because such awards were more remunerative than most of the highest paid fellowships in the country, we were enabled to attract a group of outstanding young scholars. But in addition to playing Santa Claus for incoming students, the NDEA office saw fit to provide generous indirect support as well. Hence thousands of dollars were poured into the department's coffers, to be spent as we saw fit. Each fellowship, that is, carried with it a generous stipend for assorted needs of the program (other than salaries). It was a glorious opportunity, and with our first four NDEA awards, our department was in the happy situation described by Wordsworth's Preludeabout the opening days of the French Revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven.

With funds assured for our young department, the next question was how best they might be spent. I had once heard Robert Marshak dispensing advice on this topic and because of his notorious successes in building up our outstanding Department of Physics, it seemed wise to pay heed to his recipe on how a new graduate program can flourish if its Chairman has adequate funds to spend at his discretion. Of course, I, as Chairman of English, was happy to accept such heady advice, but the responsibilities were sometimes awe-inspiring.

The solution that evolved, after consultations with colleagues, was to divide our funds into two parts. A smaller sum was set aside to enhance our program by inviting outstanding scholar-critics to campus for some days of consultations, seminars, and lectures (for example, an expert on textual editing such as Fredson Bowers), and, in addition, every year to invite a full-time visiting professor to join us, often from a British university or sometimes from North America such as the formidable Chicago critic R.S. Crane. The larger part of our funds, however, was set aside to provide some sort of reading facility for our graduate students, a facility which would house a collection of books selected to meet their special needs.

But to implement this second proposal we needed something more than funds; we needed space, and, at a time when the College was expanding explosively, it looked as if suitable space was going to be impossible to find. Nevertheless, acting on a tip kindly supplied by Hayden White (at that time a member of the History department), a reconnaissance was made of the top floor of Rush Rhees Library which was occupied, at that date, by the Department of Psychology. Patient sleuthing, aided by a kindly janitor with a pass key, led to the discovery of a vast room, with very high walls, which was lit by high-up windows facing out to the Library's rooftops. Dean Hazlett ruled that our program needed support, and so this fine room became ours to make over according to our heart's desire.

The resources of our NDEA nest egg were now put to work, and most profitably. Our first expenditure was, of course, for bookshelves, and next for an elaborate system of overhead lighting, followed by a set of comfortable chairs, sturdy enough to withstand the strains of habitual chair-tilters. And finally we acquired a beautiful long table, running much of the length of the room, for this, our first facility, was to combine two roles (not always compatible as we later learned): it was to be a combination of reading room and seminar room.

The next task-and the most crucial one of course—was to decide what books were to be bought to fill these new bookshelves, and, in the same vein, to decide what function did we expect our new collection to serve? The basic principle of selection was agreed upon early; what we wanted to provide for our graduate students was what we called a Core Collection. It was not until eighteen or nineteen years later that the collection assumed the name of "Koller-Collins Center for Graduate English Studies"; up until 1978 it was known simply as "The Core Collection for Graduate Studies in English."

The components of the "Core" will be indicated below, but first let me cite a second desideratum of our arrangements, which was availability. What we had in mind was the kind of experience often suffered by graduate students when preparing a paper or getting ready for Comprehensive Examinations: the maddening experience of wasting time in seeking out basic texts in the stacks, alternating with trips to the Reference Room. It seemed to us that it would be a striking advantage to have on hand, immediately accessible, such tools as dictionaries, anthologies, literary histories, standard texts, bibliographies, and other such useful publications. And to guarantee availability of all the books in the Core Collection we instituted a rule that no book could be taken out of the room by anyone, including faculty—a provision that sometimes led to apoplectic outbursts of complaints by browsing academics. Our policy was aimed to offset the frustrations commonly experienced when one has laboriously tracked down a much desired book in the stacks and finds that the book has been lost or taken out. The amounts of time commonly wasted by unsuccessful searching would make an awesome total.

Before indicating what we included in our selections for the collection, I should mention the limits of what we meant by a "Core."  Very few periodicals would be part of the collection; they would have to be sought in the stacks or the Periodicals Room. The same point would apply to manuscripts, which would have to be sought out in the Rare Book department, for the Core Collection would not ordinarily include manuscripts. The Core Collection was to supplement, not supplant, the resources of the regular library. A rule related to this consideration was that every title in the Core Collection had also to be available in the main library.

In making our selections (and all members were consulted to provide suggestions) we agreed at once that a set of the New English Dictionary, and an unabridged Webster's, were the first items on our list. Other essential reference works came next and were acquired almost immediately such as foreign language dictionaries, literary histories, anthologies (such as the Norton Anthology of English Literature), and dictionaries of national biography.

The choosing of such reference works was the easiest part of our assignment; by the end of two years the Core Collection consisted of over a thousand volumes, most of them works of reference. The second category featured suitable editions of major authors, and here again the process of selection worked smoothly. For the ten volumes of the works of Edmund Spenser, for example, or for the Notebooks of Emerson, there would be no arguments; everyone agreed that such authors were important, and everyone agreed about which editions of their writings were most suitable for us to acquire. Where disagreements arose, as was inevitable, was in resolving how to identify which authors are major, or, more precisely, which are the writers about whom all graduate students might be expected to have some degree of familiarity?

For example, what about the writings of the poet-critic Sidney Lanier? Most of us would surely rank him as minor league, but there was no such unanimity among members of the committee responsible for selecting books for the Core Collection. One of the most vocal members of the committee was William Gilman, a scholar passionately committed to high-class editing, who steadfastly reminded us that Lanier's writings had been lovingly edited in a set of ten fat volumes published in 1945 by Johns Hopkins Press. Professor Gilman therefore dismissed the argument about whether or not Lanier's writings were of major importance; what mattered, he said, was that the editing was important! On this occasion he won his case, and considerable bookshelf space is taken up with the expensive Lanier edition. On later occasions, however, Gilman's special preferences did not prevail, and, on the whole, the choices of standard editions were made without dissension.

The chief area for disagreement concerned the choice of secondary works. Which of the hundreds of books about Shakespeare or Dickens could be properly nominated to be worthy of the Core category? And, how many such studies should there be? Biographies, by the way, were rarely a problem. The usual strategy was to include an early and later version of the life. For George Eliot, for example, the 1885 biography of J. W. Cross would be supplemented by some more recent version such as one by Gordon Haight. But choosing critical studies was much less congenial, and there were occasions when departmental blood flowed freely.


The second stage of the fortunes of the Core Collection opened in 1972 when we were obliged to move the whole collection over to Morey Hall. We were relinquishing our Rush Rhees #456 to the Department of History, which seemed fitting inasmuch as we had first acquired the facility with the aid of history professor Hayden White!

Despite our reluctance to move, it soon became evident that the new location was a major improvement. A serious flaw from 1960 to 1972 had been our trying to combine a reading room with a seminar room (three-hour seminars were held five afternoons a week), and, overall, there were too many times when the room degenerated into a noisy lounge. In Morey Hall we could set up our seminars independently in a room on the fourth floor. In it we installed our NDEA furniture. Then, altogether separately, on the fifth floor, we installed our books, and furnished the room with newly acquired reading tables (supplied by the college). This move to our new facility was made under the inspired direction of J. W. Johnson, who made sure that this new facility would be a place for study rather than a lounge for coffee and gossip. One of his most striking changes concerned smoking. Professor Johnson, long before his time, argued that tobacco smoke was bad for our books as well as being bad for the lungs of our graduate students. And his radical prohibitions are still in effect sixteen years later.

My narrative has so far painted an altogether rosy picture and has not faced up to the problems that increasingly began to plague the effectiveness of the Core Collection and its reading room. The problem was, of course, money. Funds were needed to purchase important new publications, and funds were also needed to pay the salaries of reading room supervisors, whose services were essential for the safeguarding of the Collection.

For several years in the 1960s, we had been amply taken care of by our NDEA funds, but, as these dried up, we were hard pressed to keep our admirable facility operating. In the early 1970s, deplorably, our lack of funds forced us more and more to resort to keeping the reading room closed for longer periods of time, both in the evenings and in the daytime.

But help was coming. In 1972, in my last official report to the Dean as Chairman about conditions in our Department, I presented my annual lament about the lack of adequate funds to support our Core Collection. My lament on this topic was, as always, an expected one. But what was less expected was my venturing an optimistic prophecy when I suggested that our incoming Chairman, Rowland Collins, might find some magical way to solve our problems. Here is the statement from my 1972 report — a document preserved (rather surprisingly) in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of Rush Rhees:

I have wondered whether some benefactor, seeking a memorial for his benefactions, might be interested in endowing the room under his (or her) name. Among his many other virtues my successor, as Chairman (Rowland Collins), has a fine eye for possible benefactors, and perhaps he may be able to effect an arrangement that would be a happy one for both our Department and for the other party.

It was only four years later that Professor Collins summoned me to his office to hear his joyful tidings that he had, indeed, located a benefactor who was desirous of supporting our Core Collection. The benefactor's sole precondition (besides anonymity) was that the name of our Collection was to be changed, for this potential benefactor had been a longtime admirer of our Department's pioneering former Chairman, Kathrine Koller, and also an admirer of its then present Chairman, Rowland Collins, and hence the request that the Collection be renamed in their honor. The arrangement was a triumphant example of Rowland Collins' skills as a negotiator, and, some time later, in 1978, a bronze plaque was installed in the reading room confirming the new title: "The Koller-Collins Center for Graduate English Studies." This new dispensation meant that our twenty-year-old facility had been finally saved.

Incidentally, it was typical of Rowland Collins' nice sense of diplomatic proprieties that the name of the benefactor (man or woman) has so far never been disclosed.


The third and final phase of our saga, occurring in 1987, can of course be covered much more briefly. In the mid months of that year the Koller-Collins Center was moved to its third (and presumably its final) location. It was moved back into Rush Rhees, and on the same floor where it had been located almost thirty years earlier, but with some extraordinary differences and improvements!

The true begetter of this third phase was Russell Peck, aided and abetted by Cyrus Hoy, when the Center was incorporated into the lavishly equipped Rossell Hope Robbins Library, a magnificent new facility which is described by Russell Peck in a separate article(pages 7-9 of this issue). Comfortable seating, excellent lighting, and accessible shelving of our enlarged collections all constitute an ideal setup for our program of graduate studies. An additionally impressive feature of the new arrangements is the provision for full-time supervision of the Center and its holdings.

One further feature of our holdings in the new location are some special collections of first editions of Matthew Arnold donated by Mrs. E. K. Brown, and some 800 volumes from the collections of Rowland Collins (contributed by Sarah Collins). The Collins books are predominantly devoted to Tennyson, but there are also others featuring Anglo-Saxon literature and the novels of George Eliot.

Such special collections enhance the prestige of the Center, but, from the perspective of its thirty-year history, they function as epicycles. The principal objectives, as outlined in 1958, of promoting the successful workings of our graduate program, have been realized because of our good fortune in attracting outside support in three stages: first through NDEA; second through our anonymous donor, and finally through Rossell Hope Robbins. Thus, as the saying has it, have we been thrice blessed. 

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