The History of Special Collections at Brown University

The Late 18th Century

The "Distresses of our oppressed Country," as the American Revolution was described in a class petition, interrupted the College's course of instruction between December, 1776 and June, 1782. The College Edifice was used as a barracks and hospital for the American and French troops. The library, fortunately, was removed and stored in rural Wrentham, Massachusetts at the home of William Williams, of Williams Table fame.

Upon the reorganization of the College in the fall of 1782, the Corporation resolved that the "Library, which, owing to the public confusions, has for several years been in the country, after being compared and examined by the catalogue, be immediately brought with care into town." The catalog in question, undated and in President Manning's hand, probably was compiled in 1782 and listed some 6oo volumes. Most of those volumes survive today as the Williams Table Collection and they constitute one of Brown's most institutionally significant special collections.

Asher Robbins, appointed Tutor and Librarian upon the return of the collection to the College Edifice, immediately undertook with President Manning to strengthen the library's holdings. At a meeting of the Corporation, John Brown proposed raising a fund, by subscription, for the purchase of books. To encourage liberal donations, he suggested that Corporation members subscribe what they would and procure additional funds from other sources. Whatever that amount was, Brown pledged to subscribe an equal sum. This, the first fund drive ever launched for the library, raised over £700 and marked the beginning of the Brown family's benefactions to the University Library, a tradition that has continued to the present day.

Through subsequent subscription drives, appropriations made by the Corporation and student library fees, the College, for the first time, bought sizeable numbers of new books for the library. With £222 of the 1784 fund, 1,400 volumes were selected by President Manning and Chancellor Stephen Hopkins and ordered from the firm of James Buckland in London. These books, primarily in the fields of English history and literature, represented one of the first, and by far the largest, efforts by the College to buy books systematically to support the curriculum.

Many significant books and collections continued to be donated to the library during the last 15 years of the 18th century. The College received important collections from the Bristol (England) Educational Society which included books that had belonged to the Rev. Andrew Gifford, Sub-Librarian of the British Museum, and the library of Thomas Llewellyn, one of the College Library's earliest benefactors. Moses Brown gave a collection of Quaker titles, described by Reuben Aldridge Guild in his History of Brown University (Providence, 1867) as "now rare and of great value." Nicholas Brown, Class of 1786, gave 350 law books which were placed in "a conspicuous alcove" and were forbidden to be taken from the library "by any person whomsoever." The gift of law books is the earliest documented special collection acquired by the College. Ironically, it was broken up late in the 19th century and is today dispersed throughout Special Collections.

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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