The History of Special Collections at Brown University

The 1980s

Renovation of the John Hay Library began in January, 1980 and was completed by September of 1981. This included installation of air conditioning and environmental controls, fire alarms and security systems, and establishment of a fine bindery and a paper conservation laboratory. The finished product is now one of the most sophisticated special collections facilities in the country.

The late Mrs. John Nicholas Brown had begun transferring control of her personal library of books and prints dealing with military iconography to Special Collections as early as 1967. However, it was not until after the renovation was complete that the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection was finally installed in the John Hay Library. At its beginning, the focus of this collection was on the history of military uniforms of all nations from the 17th century to the present. However, in the course of over 40 years, the collection has come to include material on military and naval history, political and military biography, portraits and caricatures, as well as on heraldry, architecture, general costume and other unexpected topics. The 25,000 volumes, 60,000 prints, photographs, drawings and watercolors, and over 5,000 military miniatures mark this as one of the pre-eminent collections of its kind in the world.

Merrily E. Taylor was appointed University Librarian in July of 1982. Since that time, the John Hay Library has celebrated its 75th anniversary and the library system has acquired its 2 millionth volume. There have also been three major acquisitions of collections, all during 1987. In January, the American Mathematical Society agreed to give its archives to the library. The Society, founded in 1888, promotes growth of mathematical research in America and is the principal professional society for academic mathematicians with over 22,000 members worldwide. It publishes the largest abstracting and reviewing journal in mathematics, Mathematical Reviews, along with eight research journals and seven journals devoted to translations of Russian mathematical research. In addition, the Society issues approximately 60 books or monographs per year. This collection, to be known as the Archives of Mathematics and Mathematicians, will include the Society's various publications plus its office and historical files as well as the private papers of selected mathematicians.

In March, Special Collections obtained an assortment of published and unpublished works by noted humorist S. J. Perelman, Class of 1925 and his brother-in-law Nathaniel West, Class of 1924. The collection of books from Perelman's library, including many of his own publications, plus personal and literary papers, was formerly in the possession of his late wife, Laura West Perelman, Class of 1931. Among the papers are two unpublished plays by Perelman, All Good Americans, written in collaboration with his wife and Even Stephen, written in collaboration with West.

Finally in May, the members of the Rhode Island Medical Society voted to donate their library of more than 30,000 volumes to Brown. The more recent books and serials, including journals issued by national and state medical associations, will be added to the Sciences Library to support the University's Program in Medicine. However, two important groups of rare or unusual books collected by the Society in its 175 years will join Special Collections. The first is the Davenport Collection, an endowed gift from Dr. James Henry Davenport, containing "books on medical history, medical biography and extra-curricular writings of physicians." It is these extra-curricular writings that give the collection its eclectic flavor. Included are books by physician authors in the fields of history, biography, travel narratives, fiction, poetry and drama, as well as many other works from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (London, 1892) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Oliver Wendell Holmes's The Poet at the Breakfast-Table (Boston,1872). The second group comprises the contents of the Society's De Jong Rare Book Room plus titles selected from its general collection. Here are medical classics such as Pliny's Historia Naturale (Venice, 1501), Galen's works (Venice, 1525), Avicenna's Liber Canonis (Venice, 1555), Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Amsterdam, 1642) and works by Celsus, Harvey, Boerhaave, Paré, Morgagni and Osler along with other authoritative texts including the ubiquitous Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical (London, 1858) of Henry Gray.

The general collection includes numerous 18th and 19th century medical tracts published in America from Nicholas Culpeper's Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (Boston, 1720) to the "ether controversy" of the 1850's and beyond. There is also a substantial selection of pamphlets dealing with homeopathy, hydropathy, naturopathy and other less orthodox medical doctrines more frequently practiced in the 19th century.

In its totality this gift from the Medical Society greatly enhances the medical assets of the Brown University Library system. For Special Collections, in particular, these books constitute another cornerstone in the foundation of its history of science collections as they add strength and depth to resources for the study of early medical science.

For information about collection acquisitions from 1987-1997, see the publication Three for Three Million: The Paul R. Dupee Jr. '65 Acquisitions: Celebrating the Brown University Library's Three Millionth Volume

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Excerpted from: Special Collections at Brown University: A History and Guide,
Providence, Rhode Island: The Friends of the Library of Brown University, 1988
Funding provided by Daniel G. Siegel (Class of 1957), and the Twenty-First Century Fund