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RG 16 - Oberlin College Library
Biography/Administrative History


The history of the Oberlin College Library is one of individual leadership, an evolving collection of information in a variety of media, and growth and change in physical facilities.  Individuals serving as director of the library have had varying impacts depending on how their roles as librarian were defined, the position of the library within the academic culture of Oberlin, and the resources they were able to command.  The library's collections have reflected the emphases of the institution, both in the centrality of books and reading to teaching and learning and in the subject matter taught.  The physical housing of the collection has been an outward symbol of the role and importance of the library within the institution.


In 1834, the Faculty elected Dr. James Dascomb, colony physician and instructor in the sciences, as the first librarian.  He served in this part-time, caretaker capacity until 1873, except for a brief hiatus from 1846 to 1853.  During that period, Lane Seminary rebel and Oberlin graduate (class of 1836) Henry E. Whipple performed the librarian's minimal duties — maintaining a record of holdings and a log of borrowers.  Whipple was principal of the Preparatory Department and lived in Oberlin Hall, where the library was housed.  Dascomb requested that Whipple take over the library, since both conveniently resided in the same building.

Dascomb resumed the librarian's job in 1853 and carried it, along with teaching all classes in chemistry, botany, and physiology, until 1873.  In 1874, the Reverend Henry Matson received the appointment as Oberlin College's first full-time librarian.  Matson had worked as a stenographer in New York City before attending Oberlin's Theological Seminary and graduating in 1861.  For twelve years he held various pastorates.  He returned to Oberlin in 1873 to record Charles Grandison Finney's dictated autobiography and was soon appointed librarian, in which capacity he served until 1887.

The library of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute was born simultaneously with the Institute itself.  When John J. Shipherd toured New England in 1833 to raise funds for his wilderness project, many clergymen gave him their unwanted books.  In 1835, the entire collection was worth little more than $100, and by the end of 1836 amounted to less than 800 volumes.  The collection grew significantly, however, when John Keep and William Dawes went to England in 1839-40 to solicit support from anti-slavery activists for the financially floundering institution.  While there, they purchased $400 worth of books with funds that had been appropriated three years earlier.  British Quakers and reformers added another 2000 volumes.  Thus, by 1840, the Library contained about 3700 volumes, the bulk of which dealt with Christian reform, slavery, abolition, and theology.  This early collection also included standard works of English literature, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew classics, history, mental and moral philosophy, science, and music.

In 1852, students felt that the library was so inadequate that they petitioned the Prudential Committee to find money for purchasing new books.  The perceived inadequacy of the College's collection of books no doubt influenced the decision by the men's and women's literary societies to develop their own libraries.  The Phi Delta [men's] Society and the Young Men's Lyceum formed the College Literary Societies Library Association in 1854-55.  In 1857, the library established by that association became one of the first depositories for federal government documents.  The ladies' societies followed suit in 1859, forming the Ladies' Society Library Association.  In 1862, the combined literary societies' libraries contained 4000 volumes, while the College Library in 1863 held 6500 books.  In 1884, all of the literary societies joined forces to form the Union Library Association.

In the early years of the Library's history, the pattern of book usage by students was quite different from modern practice.  Fairchild noted that a student's first priority was to learn the material in his/her textbook in order to provide a satisfactory recitation of the facts in class.  Reading was considered a profitable extracurricular activity for the little time remaining to students after they had fully prepared for recitations and examinations.  The library served primarily as a resource for teachers.  Even as late as 1884, students used the library mainly to prepare "orations, briefs, and essays" for meetings of the literary and debate societies and for commencement — not, in general, to fulfill course requirements.

The library's regulations for borrowing books both reflected and shaped that usage pattern.  In 1834, students could withdraw only one book at a time, and then only for purposes deemed appropriate by the faculty.  Three years later, the limit for withdrawal was raised to two books, but the librarian had the power to withhold books at his own discretion.  The faculty voted in 1843 to completely close the book stacks to direct student access.  Students chose their books from a list and were met at the door with their requests.  In the 1840's the library was open only one hour per week.  These hours were extended in the 1860's, but arranged so that men and women could not frequent the library at the same time.

In accordance with its less than central role in the academic life of the College during its first fifty years, the library had several homes.  The first recorded resting place for books was a room on the northeast side of Oberlin Hall.  From 1855 to 1867, a room in the chapel on Tappan Square did duty as the library.  In 1868, Society Hall was built, providing space on the upper floor for both College and literary society libraries.  This location served until 1885, when Spear Library, the first building intended specifically for library use, was built.

Charles Vinal Spear, an 1846 Amherst College graduate, owned and administered the Maplewood Institute, a Christian school for girls in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  Spear had no direct connection to Oberlin, but was acquainted with Professor A.A. Wright and strongly supported Oberlin's institutional mission.  When his wife, Relief Holbrook Spear, died in 1884, he sold his school and gave the College about $25,000 for the construction of a library and $11,000 for an endowment fund for the purchase of books.  The building was sufficiently large to house the departments of Natural History and Biology and the Oberlin College Museum without crowding the library.  In fact, it was generally agreed upon that no changes or additional space would be required for the library for another fifty years.


When Spear Library was completed in 1885, the faculty decided that it was an appropriate time to modernize the library's system of organization.  Nine years earlier, Melvil Dewey's method of classification and Cutter's system of cataloging had been published.  In 1885, the faculty voted to adopt Dewey's system.  They commissioned Azariah Smith Root, who had graduated from Oberlin in 1884 and was then a law student at Boston University, to undertake the classification of Oberlin's library and establish a card catalog.  Root completed the project in one year and then left to attend Harvard Law School.  When he had been at Harvard for one year, Oberlin invited him back to serve as its first professional librarian.

Root's return to Oberlin marked the beginning of a new era of professionalism for the library.  When he arrived, he was immediately faced with a lack of funds, a library endowment of approximately $19,000, an overworked staff, and an inadequate collection of about 14,000 books and pamphlets.  When he died in 1927, his legacy was a library with over half of a million items and an endowment of well over a quarter of a million dollars.

Root moved the library from a relatively low profile position in the academic culture to a position of centrality governed by his own prominence on the campus and in the library profession.  As director of the library, he had faculty status, served on the President's Prudential Committee, and was a member of the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees.  A prominent citizen of the town of Oberlin, Root served for many years on the local school board and was a charter member of the Anti-Saloon League.  He was a recognized authority on librarianship, served as president of the American Library Association and the Library Association of Ohio, and was an active member of library associations in Germany, England, and the Netherlands.

Under Root's administration, the library's collection experienced phenomenal growth.  In 1892, the holdings passed the 25,000 mark; that number doubled by 1900 and reached 75,000 in 1906.  By 1910, Root had built up the largest academic library in Ohio and the nineteenth largest academic library in the United States.  By 1923, Oberlin's was the largest college library in the country and ranked sixteenth among university libraries.  Upon Root's death in 1927, the total holdings of the library exceeded 500,000 items.

During this fifty year period, Root initiated a program whereby multiple copies of books were exchanged with other libraries for items the Oberlin College Library did not own.  The library continued, however, to rely heavily upon donations of books to expand the collection, a fact that seemed to trouble Root.  He wrote in his 1904 Annual Report that "while this generosity is an important supplement to the Acquisitions means used by the College to promote research, it can never take the place of expenditure of money to purchase the literature of the present and of the past."  Nonetheless, until the early 1930's between fifty and seventy-five percent of yearly acquisitions came through gifts and exchange.  The largest single gift was the transfer of the Union Library Association's 14,456 volume collection in 1908 — a valuable gift, since each volume of that collection had been carefully selected and purchased with faculty advice and based on documented student need.

One of Root's first acts as administrator of the Library was to rewrite the rules to permit students to withdraw more books concurrently and to renew books.  He also increased library hours and permitted men and women to use the library at the same time.  New rules, the rapidly expanding collection, and the demise of the literary society libraries all combined to propel the Library into a more central and prominent role in the academic culture of Oberlin.  By 1923, average daily attendance during the school year had surpassed 1000, and over 70,000 volumes per year were circulating for home use.  Finally, an alumnus writing in 1923 could say that the library was a place where "a large part of all the work of the students is done" — a marked contrast to fifty years earlier when reading library books was essentially an extracurricular activity.

One of Root's major achievements was acquiring funds for, planning, and overseeing the construction of Carnegie Library.  When Root arrived in 1887, he and his wife actually set up housekeeping in rooms on the top floor of Spear Library, which also housed the natural sciences departments, the Oberlin College Museum, and, of course, the Library.  Within a decade, Root and his wife had moved out and the Library was squeezing out the Museum and the natural sciences.  Books were stacked on tables, the floor, and temporary shelving in Spear, and in various closets and attics around campus.  Accommodations for 150 were contrived in a reading room designed to seat 75.

Root began negotiating with the Carnegie Corporation in the fall of 1903 for a $125,000 grant to build a new library building.  Root offered to raise a $100,000 endowment as a matching fund and to provide an "open-shelf" room and children's room as a public library for the community.  In the spring of 1905, Carnegie approved the award with only the $100,000 endowment as a condition.  Root's priorities for the building were that it be "fireproof," have an interior designed for "economy of administration," and have "suitable light and adequate ventilation."  The College engaged the firm of Patton and Miller of Chicago, designers of Warner Gymnasium, as architects for the new building.  Ground was broken in 1906 and Carnegie Library was ready in the fall of 1908.  Thus, twenty-three years after Spear Library had been declared more than adequate for fifty years growth, a new building dedicated entirely to Library use had been constructed.

The construction of Carnegie Library brought the College into a new and unique relationship with the town of Oberlin.  While Andrew Carnegie did not condition his grant on the provision of public library service by the College, the College followed through with its offer to provide such service to the community and the local public schools.  The "Open Shelf" Room and a children's collection were established as departments of the Oberlin College Library.  The town, in return, floated a one-mill tax levy to help support public library service financially.  The College and town thus embarked upon a cooperative venture that continued, in one form or another, for eighty years.


When Azariah Root died in 1927, Julian Fowler was appointed his successor.  Fowler had received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Hobart College in 1911 and a certificate from the New York School of Library Science (now a part of Columbia University) in 1922.  Prior to coming to Oberlin, he was a librarian at the United States Marine Barracks at Parris Island, Princeton University, and the University of Cincinnati.  Fowler, like Root before him, was active and highly respected in the profession.  He served as chairman of the College Library Section of the American Library Association, member of the Board of Directors of the College and Reference Library Association, and president of the Ohio State Library Association.  During his tenure at Oberlin and after his retirement, he lectured on the history of the book at the Western Reserve University School of Library Science.  An involved citizen of the community, Fowler was an active member of Christ Episcopal Church, as well as a member of Oberlin City Club, the Lorain County Historical Society, and the Oberlin Historical and Improvement Organization.

Fowler worked to improve the collection and the services offered by the Library.  When he arrived, the library's endowment stood at over $250,000.  Shortly after his arrival, the Carnegie Corporation awarded Oberlin a $150,000 grant to endow the Librarian's position, thereafter known as the Azariah Smith Root Director of Libraries.  In 1927, funds from the Charles Martin Hall bequest were allocated to increase book funds, improve salaries, and hire additional staff.  By the time Fowler retired in 1956, the endowment had reached almost $436,000.

Fowler inherited a collection of over 500,000 books and pamphlets in 1927; when he left in 1956, that figure stood in excess of 800,000 — despite the fact that he systematized the withdrawal of obsolete books and multiple copies of less important works.  The Librarian emphasized that quality in the Library was more important than quantity, especially when it came to allocating the scarce commodity of stack space.

During Fowler's tenure, Oberlin pioneered in offering alumni loan service by mail, even going so far as to loan books to alumni serving overseas in the armed forces during the Second World War.  The Library also improved its summer loan service for students and gave passes to the closed stack area more liberally.  Fowler also began the practice of setting up special exhibits.

As did his two predecessors, Fowler oversaw a major construction project for the library.  As early as 1923, Azariah Root's nephew Keyes Metcalf, writing in the Alumni Magazine, had emphasized the urgent need for an addition to Carnegie:  "The present building is full from end to end and top to bottom….  The stack was planned to hold 140,000 [total] volumes and the bound volumes alone now number 235,000."  In 1939, the College allocated $225,000 for expanding and renovating Carnegie Library.  (The final cost totaled $250,000.)  Robert Cutler, College Superintendent of Construction, oversaw the project without outside collaboration.  The addition of 8500 square feet increased stack capacity to 500,000 volumes and provided seating for 187 readers.  President Ernest H. Wilkins, writing to Dr. Frederick Keppel of the Carnegie Corporation in September 1940, indicated that the addition "should…prove permanently sufficient, with what we already have, to house as large an active book collection as we really need."  The addition included space for a rare book room, but that room was not completed, due to lack of funds, until 1948.  A gift by long-time Oberlin supporter R.T. Miller made the Rare Book Room possible, although by the time it was completed it was not large enough to house the entire collection.

Fowler's tenure also brought a major development in the relationship between the Oberlin College Library and the Oberlin community.  When Carnegie Library was built, the College provided library service to the local community and public schools, with a small amount of financial support contributed by City Council and the Board of Education.  This relationship changed in 1947 when the Oberlin Public Library was organized as a separate entity governed by a six-member Board of Trustees appointed by City Council.  The Public Library was operated by the College under contract with the municipality.  Under Ohio law, the Public Library was part of the Lorain County Public Library System and was thus eligible to share in certain county-wide tax receipts.  Under the contract negotiated between the College and the Public Library, "the College Librarian was designated Librarian of the Public Library, professional and support staff continued as College employees, and the College and Oberlin Public Library Board agreed to provide mutually beneficial services to each other."  Oberlin residents, according to Fowler, continued to have "freedom of the entire collection," while other Lorain County residents were restricted to the Adult, Children's, and Reference Departments specifically designated as the Public Library.


Julian Fowler was succeeded as Librarian by Eileen Thornton, who filled the position from 1956 to 1971.  A graduate of the University of Minnesota and the University of Chicago, Thornton had worked in various library positions in the northeast, including serving as Librarian at Vassar College from 1945-56.  Like her predecessors, she was active professionally, serving on the Board of Trustees of the Public Affairs Information Service, the Board of Overseers of Case Western Reserve University, the Executive Board of the Ohio College Library Center (OCLC), and the Council and Executive Board of the American Library Association.  In 1969, she was selected as the only woman and the only college librarian to serve as a delegate to the first Japan-U.S. Conference on Libraries and Information Science in Higher Education.

During her tenure, Thornton succeeded in broadening the scope of the collection, improving service, and planning and securing funding for a new multi-million dollar library.  She increased the endowment from $436,000 to $467,556.  When she arrived in 1956, the library contained about 800,000 items; when she retired in 1971, that figure stood near one million.  She developed a major music library to serve the Conservatory, a unified science library in Kettering, and a collection to support East Asian Studies.  She also augmented the staff with subject specialist librarians in music, art, and science.  In addition, Thornton played a significant role in the long-term effort to establish a College Archives, separate from the library, to oversee institutional records and personal manuscript collections.  That drive culminated in 1966 when William Bigglestone was hired as the first College Archivist.

Thornton's greatest achievement by far was her eight-year drive to plan and secure support from the administration for a new library.  Despite the fact that President Wilkins had in 1940 declared the addition to Carnegie a "permanent" solution to the library's space problems, by 1956, space was once again at a premium.  At Thornton's urging, the trustees finally agreed in 1963 to hire Ralph Ellsworth (OC '29) as a consultant to evaluate the College's library needs.  The report by Ellsworth, a nationally known authority on university library planning, served as the basis for eight years of planning that culminated in the construction of the Mudd Learning Center.

Ellsworth strongly criticized the facilities in Carnegie and urged that it be converted to other purposes and that a new library be constructed.  The crux of his argument was that Carnegie was designed for storing books, rather than for people to use books.  He pointed out that the building afforded no private study areas for small groups or individuals and no student-faculty conference rooms.  The building was not adapted for housing non-print media or for the use of modern electronic listening and learning equipment.  The book stacks were "tortuous, cramped, dirty, badly lighted, poorly ventilated, not properly humidified, and…unsafe for human use."  Finally, Ellsworth declared, "This building frankly breeds disrespect for books and learning."  To remedy the situation, he recommended construction of a $3.2 million, 115,560 square foot building and that the departmental libraries (Art, Theology, Music, and Science) be retained.

President Robert K. Carr responded in May 1964 by appointing a Special Library Committee of the General Faculty to study the report.  The Committee approved the report and recommended that an architect be hired to produce preliminary plans.  In the fall of 1965, the firm Warner Toan Burns and Lunde were engaged and the plans they submitted were reviewed by the Committee.  In January 1967, the committee requested the Board of Trustees to approve the construction of a facility with a capacity for 800,000 volumes, seating for 1350 readers, fifty scholar studies, a computing Center, an Audio-Visual Center, an Archives, and space for staff and operations.  In March 1967, the Board of Trustees instructed the architects to begin detailed working drawings for a "learning resource center."

It was not, however, until early 1971 that the new Learning Center was a certainty.  At that time, the Seeley G. Mudd Fund of Los Angeles awarded Oberlin College $2.75 million for construction of the Seeley G. Mudd Learning Center.  That grant, along with other major donations and funds raised in the "Campaign for the Seventies," provided the necessary financial resources for construction.  Ground was broken on October 19, 1971; on May 25, 1974, the Learning Center was dedicated.  In the end, the building had 196,750 square feet and capacity for 653,00 books (plus non-print media, special collections, and periodicals), built and equipped at a cost of slightly over $10 million.

Thornton retired in 1971.  Herbert E. Johnson, another University of Minnesota graduate, assumed the position of Director of Libraries and oversaw the construction, equipping, and move into Mudd Center.  Johnson had previously (1964-71) served as Head Librarian of Hamline University, where he planned and supervised construction of a new library, and it was his experience in that venture that most highly recommended him for the post at Oberlin.  During his seven-year term at Oberlin, Johnson increased the library's endowment from $467,556 to nearly $671,000, but also presided over major budget cuts during the mid-seventies, the result of fiscal stringency necessitated by economic recession.

The other major development during Johnson's tenure was the further evolution in the relationship between the College and Public Libraries.  The contract between the College and the municipality had been in effect since 1947.  In 1975, a new ten-year contract was signed that made some fundamental changes.  Under the new contract, professional and support staff of the Public Library were changed from College employees to employees of the Board of Trustees of the Oberlin Public Library.  College personnel had formerly performed all cataloging and processing tasks; under the new contract, these duties were shared.  A member of the Board replaced the College Librarian as Clerk-Treasurer of the Public Library, with the College Librarian and his secretary redesignated as Deputy Clerk Treasurers.  Finally, as of January 1, 1977, the Oberlin Public Library Board named a member of the staff, Eleanor E. Owen, Director of the Public Library, with responsibility for operations and administration.  The College Librarian's role was redefined as that of Advisor/Consultant.


Herbert E. Johnson left Oberlin to assume the directorship of the Emory University Library in 1978.  He was succeeded by William A. Moffett.  Two major challenges faced Moffett on his arrival.  First, he had to bring about a recovery from the budget cuts of the preceding three to five years.  Between 1978 and 1988, the library endowment increased from $671,000 to $2.2 million.  A "Friends of the Oberlin College Library" organization was established to encourage alumni to provide support through financial gifts and gifts of rare books.  Under the program, for example, some individuals paid for periodicals subscriptions, while another person established and equipped a preservation lab.

At the same time, Moffett had to prepare the Oberlin College Library for the twenty-first century through automation.  At the time of Eileen Thornton's retirement, the library's holdings totaled nearly 1,000,000 items.  By 1988, that figure had grown to 1,553,650.  To establish better management of these collections, an online circulation system was installed in 1978.  Between 1982 and 1986, the library embarked on a project to convert the card catalog to machine readable records and, in 1984, implemented an automated acquisitions and serials control system (Innovacq).  In 1986, a long period of study culminated in the decision to purchase the GEAC 9000 automated circulation system and online catalog.

The goal of the retrospective conversion project had been to create computer records for all catalogued books and periodicals prior to implementing an online catalog.  Most libraries would begin their online catalog with their most recent acquisitions and work their way back as time and funds afforded.  The Oberlin College Library decided to take the first course because 1) statistics indicated that older materials constituted a substantial percentage of circulation; 2) other academic and music libraries were eager to access Oberlin's collections through OCLC; and, 3) studies indicated that when an online catalog is established, patrons simply stop using unconverted card records.  The goals of the online catalog include providing unified access to all of the college's library holdings and the holdings of the Oberlin Public Library, improving access to scores and recordings, and improving collection management.

Although automation and consequent budgetary issues occupied a large portion of the Librarian's time, Moffett still did not escape a task which had also consumed his predecessors of the previous one hundred years — a major building program.  In 1978, the Art Library had moved into new quarters in the Venturi addition to the Allen Memorial Art Museum.  The Conservatory of Music Library, however, had been living with serious space constrictions for a long time when approval was finally gained to build an addition.  In September 1988, a $1.6 million, 10,000 square foot wing designed by Gunnar Birkerts and Associates was dedicated.  In addition to desperately needed stack, staff, and reader space, the new wing added state of the art listening facilities for phonograph records (lp's and 78's), reel-to-reel tapes, audio and video cassette tapes, and compact discs.

In 1990-91, the library operated with a staff of 55.3 FTE employees.  The administrative and professional staff of 18.5, includes the Director, who reports to the Provost of the College, Acquisition's Librarian, Circulation and Reserve Librarian, Reference Librarians, Special Collections Librarian, Systems Librarian, Head of Cataloging, and Art, Science, and Conservatory Librarians.  A Library Council (four members elected only), which since 1979 regularly met on matters relating to administration, professional development, and staff relations, was replaced in 1990 by a Library Forum.  The latter body deals with current library issues or concerns, such as staff communication, staff development, and staff relations.  A General Faculty Committee on the Library has existed at least since the 1890's.  Currently, it is comprised of five College Faculty, four Conservatory Faculty, two College and two Conservatory students, and the Director of Libraries, an ex-officio non-voting member.  According to the 1988-89 Committee Book, the Committee meets monthly with the professional staff "to discuss policies and concerns of the library and to convey reactions of the College community to its operation and services with a view to strengthening the contributions of the library to the institution."

Directors of the Oberlin College Library

            Dr. James Dascomb, 1834-46, 1853-73
            Prof. Henry E. Whipple, 1846-53
            Rev. Henry Matson, 1874-87
            Azariah Smith Root, 1887-1927
            Julian Fowler, 1927-56
            Eileen Thornton, 1956-71
            Herbert E. Johnson, 1971-78
            William A. Moffett, 1978-90
            Ray English, 1990-

Associate Directors of the Oberlin College Library

            Harold A. Olson, 1975-77
            Ray English, 1986-90
            Alan Boyd, 1991-

Sources Consulted
Oberlin College
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