Reprinted from an article on The College Library, in The Princeton Book
Boston, 1879 [pages 250-257]

Frederic Vinton, A.M.

This initial point in the history of the College Library is the 8th of May, 1755. The College having been established nine years previous, it may indeed be fairly supposed that a few books had been presented, or perhaps purchased for it, even during the doubtful and migratory existence which it had. But the day named above was marked by a brilliant benefaction on the part of its most distinguished fried, Jonathan Belcher, then Governor of New Jersey, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1681. Soon after graduating from Harvard College, in 1699, he visited England, and spent six years in various parts of Europe. Having made the acquaintance of noble and even royal personages, he returned to Boston, to live there twenty years a successful merchant. In 1722 he was sent abroad by his fellow citizens as their colonial agent. In 1730 he was appointed Governor of Massachusetts (then including Maine) and of New Hampshire. To grace this dignity, he abandoned commerce, and maintained a profuse and elegant hospitality. Smith’s History of New Jersey speaks of him as having "got early upon the wing in the gay world; a handsome exterior, a fondness for it, and for dress, equipage, and popular éclat, insensibly betrayed him into a scene of show and expense which at length proved inconvenient to his patrimony." It was said that "he carried a high hand in the government of Massachusetts." His "high-blown pride broke under him" in 1741, when detraction at the English court caused him to be deprived of his honors. He was spirited enough to carry his cause to the steps of the throne; was received with kindness, and was promised the first vacant government in America. That proved to be in the Province of New Jersey, in 1747, which he administered eleven years. This elegant and courtly gentleman was the founder of College and our library. His collection of 474 volumes, 41 being folios and 12 quartos, at once gave to the infant College a respectable rank among the possessors of books in America. There were at that moment but five institutions in the Colonies having a greater number. The Philadelphia library was of twenty-five years’ standing; but it was not till thirty years after this that it had 5,000 volumes. Harvard College library was large and rich for the times; but it was burned in 1764. Yale College library began with the century; but it had not 4,000 volumes till 1765. The New York Society library began in 1754; but had not 5,000 volumes till 1793.

This gift was not immediately available, for the College edifice was not yet completed. Nor when the building was finished, was the Library at once removed to it; for Governor Belcher lived till August 31, 1757. A manuscript list of his books yet exists in the records of the Trustees; showing that theology made a third, history a fourth, belles-lettres a fifth, law seven percent, classics in the original six percent, science and books of reference each five percent of the whole number. When we imagine Governor Belcher sitting in the midst of these books, dressed in the showy costume of that period, —velvet coat, crimson vest, small-clothes, and a sword,—having "uncommon gracefulness of person and dignity of deportment," he seems unworthy neither of Massachusetts nor of Nassau Hall. He gave his picture, but it "was destroyed during the war."

It seems probable that the removal of the College to its stately lodgement in 1756, and the installation in it of Belcher’s library in 1757, with the flow of students to its walls, stimulated other liberal gentlemen to augment the collection by gifts of their own. The preface to the first catalogue speaks of it as "formed almost entirely of the donations of public-spirited gentlemen on both sides of the Atlantic." Within only two years from its removal to Princeton, the Trustees thought the accumulation so honorable to the College, that they desired President Davies "to take a methodical catalogue of the books, and order the same to be printed at the expense of the College." The modest pamphlet, in thirty-six pages, small quarto, which resulted from this vote, was printed at Woodbridge, New Jersey, in 1760. It was one of the earliest catalogues of books printed in America. I know of but one earlier, that of the Philadelphia library, printed by Franklin in 1741. The first library catalogue for Harvard appeared in 1790; the New York Society’s first catalogue was in 1793.

This "Catalogue of books in the library of the College of New Jersey, January 29, 1760," gives the titles of about thirteen hundred volumes (as we count them, 1,281). The folios are 231, quartos 270. Among these were many volumes of the Delphin and other choice editions of the classics; many volumes of folio editions of the father; Erasmus’s edition of the Greek New Testament, Basileae, Frobenius, 1535; Eliot’s Indian Bible; Marsilio Ficino’s translation of Plato; Stephen’s Thesaurus linguae latinae, 1740, 4 v. folio; Thucydides, translated by Lorenzo Valla, 1588, folio; Maimonides de sacrificiis; Scaliger de emendatione temporum, and Historia concilii constantiensis, 7 vols., folio.

During the fifteen years which elapsed between the publication of this catalogue and the breaking out of the Revolutionary War, we may properly suppose that the Library acquired seven hundred volumes, making up tow thousand in 1775. For Dr. Witherspoon is known to have brought over three hundred volumes (the gifts of his friends), when he arrived in 1768; and he subsequently reported to the Trustees similar benefactions. But in the dark and dreary days that followed, the collection lost much which it had possessed. The storm of war which rolled so often across New Jersey never dashed upon Nassau Hall without bringing disaster to the library. In an address to the English public, when they sent Witherspoon and Reed to solicit help for the College, the Trustees speak of their building as having been "occupied as barracks by the contending armies, its library and philosophical apparatus destroyed." It has been doubtfully asserted that Cornwallis’s army carried part of the books to North Carolina. However this may have been, there is no reason to suppose that the brutality and vandalism on either side, which consumed as fuel all the woodwork of the building, sparing neither floors nor roof, abstained from injuring the books. How many and what individual volumes perished thus we shall never know. But, from the expression already quoted, it is fair to infer that a majority of the books had disappeared. In 1780, therefore, not only was the building to be restored, but the library had to be replaced.

By the end of the century, the number if not the quality of the books had surpassed its former high tide. An address to the people of the United States, adopted by the Trustees, March 18, 1802, represents the library as having lately numbered 3,000 volumes. But the new century had advanced only a year, when, on the 6<SUP>th</SUP> of March, 1802, Nassau Hall was consumed by an incendiary fire, and "all our pleasant things were again laid waste." The library was lodged in the centre of the edifice, and it perished with all the rest. The conflagration occurred at midday; but whatever books escaped must have been hastily snatched from the flames. To the learned industry of President Smith, perhaps, we owe it to that certain precious instruments of theological research were safe in his study, and are still upon our shelves. The first identification of such, by the present Librarian, was that of the four folio volumes entitled "Concordantiae sacrorum bibliorum hebraicorum, auctore Mario de Calasio, Londini, 1747-49." An inscription in the first volume shows whence and when they became the property of the College. It reads thus:"Liber collegii Neo-Caesariensis, ex dono Gar. Noel bibliopolae, N. Eboraei, Jan 14, 1760." This generous gift was just in season to be entered in the catalogue of "January 29, 1760." These, with eleven volumes, folio, of an edition of Calvin’s works, printed at Amsterdam, 1676, perhaps owed their salvation to having been borrowed some time previous.

A still more interesting discovery has lately been made. The librarian had fondly hoped to find some representative of Governor Belcher’s gift, and searched all the old volumes of the Library in quest of manuscript evidence to that effect. But though many of our books are old enough to have been Governor Belcher’s, and their titles agree with some found in the catalogue of 1760, nothing proved that they had been his. It seems not to have been hid habit to write his name in his books, nor to have any engraved bookplate. Early, however, in the academic year 1876-77, a handsome quarto volume fixed the Librarian’s eyes, as likely enough to contain what he sought. It was "Arturi Jonstoni psalmi davidiei, interpretatione, argumentis, notisque illustrati, Londini, MDCCXLI." On the first fly-leaf is the following inscription: "Boston, July 1, 1741. The gift of my worthy friend, Henry Newman Esq. of London. Rec’d this day p. Capt. Evers, J.B." In addition, we may also identify as genuine Belcher books, the two following: "Apology for the true Christian divinity, as the same is held by the people called, in scorn, Quakers … by Robert Barclay, 6th edition, London, 1736." The title-page is headed in a handwriting demonstrably the same as in the above: "London, April, 12, 1745, the gift of Mrs. Benjamin Partridge." The like is true of a volume entitled: "Sermons on several subjects, by E. Pemberton. The inscription above the title is: "Boston, October 19, 1738. The gift of the Revd. author, p. the hand of his brother, Mr. J. Pemberton." How venerable are these worn and faded volumes! They come into our hands from those of the chivalrous Governor. They have seen two armies rioting in Nassau Hall. They have seen two fires desolate it. They have been dandled by the students of every class that has graduated here,—by James Madison, Benjamin Rush, Richard Rush, John Sergeant, Edward Livingston, John Henry Hobart, Charles Pettit Mellvaine, William Meade, and Charles Hodge. They join the earliest days of the College to its latest; they identify the new library with the first that was placed within our walls. Shall they not be cherished with peculiar affection and handed down to the twentieth century? Shall they not rather be preserved till Princeton is as old as Oxford, as famous as Bologna?

Spirited and successful efforts were immediately made by President Smith in the South, and by other is the Northern Sates and in Europe, to procure the means of rebuilding the edifice and restoring the library. Other buildings were erected on the campus, new professorships were founded, students flocked I, and in two years the College was more flourishing than ever. Records still remain showing the names of many cultivated persons in American and English cities who depleted their own shelves for our benefit. It is true that many volumes thus given are no longer to be found; but the names of Dugald Stewart, Archibald Alison, Andrew Dalzel, and Thomas Erskine, written in books given by them, testify their regard for learning in the West. These, together with purchases here and abroad, enabled the trustees, in 1804, to acknowledge the possession of a "most valuable collection of near four thousand volumes." Meanwhile, to secure the library from the peril arising from the students’ fires, it was lodged in the new building, lately known as Philadelphia Hall. Its increasing bulk crowded it at length out of its new apartment; and, after the second fire and second restoration of Nassau Hall, it returned thither, to remain, however, less than ten years.

Previously to 1813 the duties of the librarian were assigned to some tutor, who received therefore additional compensation. In 1794 this officer was required, by a vote of the Trustees, to "attend at the library one day in the week, at noon, during the session, to give out books to all who have the right to apply." Dr. Philip Lindsley, the accomplished professor of ancient languages, was the first of the Faculty proper to undertake bibliographical duties here, and he discharged them con amore. Many classical volumes bear judicious notes from his hands, testifying his love of learning and of books. From 1824 to 1850, Dr. Jones Maclean, who succeeded to his professorship, followed him also in the care of the library, making it more often and more freely accessible to the students. Dr.George M. Giger, Professor of languages from the year 1854, acted as librarian from 1850 to 1866. Soon after his accession he numbered the library, and reported it to consist of 9,9313 volumes. Dr. H. C. Cameron, Professor of Greek from the year 1860, was librarian from 1865 till he resigned in 1873. During his administration, the funds of the library being enlarged, many valuable acquisitions of books were placed upon its shelves.

The revenue of the library, after its restoration in 1804, was derived from a tax of one dollar a term imposed upon the students. Its increase from such resources must have been extremely slow. But in 1812 the collection of President Smith, who then resigned (including that of Dr. Witherspoon, his father-in-law), was purchased for the College. In 1823 the number of books was judged to be 7,000; too high an estimate, we may suppose, since the same number is reported in the catalogue for 1831. In 1836, James Madison, cherishing in death the institution at which he had graduated sixty-five years before, left the library a legacy of $1,000. This was the only considerable gift in money previous to 1868. It was partly expended in the purchase of "The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Times to the Year 1800," 142 volumes bound in half calf. Such a collection seems a suitable purchase to be made with the money of such a benefactor. Several noteworthy donations of books belong to this period. James Lenox, LL.D., presented many valuable monuments of learning, especially the first three polyglots of the Scriptures. Mr. Obadiah Rich, resident in London in 1834, procured the bestowment of the Record Commission of the British Government of its curious publications, 86 volumes, folio, and 24 volumes, octavo. The legislative documents of the United States Government, continued in an almost unbroken series from the beginning of the Twentieth Congress, 1827, to the end of the Forty-fifth Congress, 1878, makeup more than fifteen hundred volumes. Matthew Newkirk, a merchant of Philadelphia, gave "Napoleon’s grand Description de l’Égypte." The family of W.H. Beattie, a teacher at Cleveland, at the instance of Rev. A. A. E. Taylor, D.D., late President of Wooster University, presented, in 1867, two or three hundred volumes, mainly of classical books. The libraries of Professors Hope and Giger, numbering several hundred volumes each, were given to the College in 1859 and 1865.

By recent gifts from John S. Pierson of New York, an alumnus of the year 1840, who still keeps up his benefactions, the library possesses 2,000 volumes, delineating, in various aspects, the late Civil War. George W. Childs, A.M., of Philadelphia, has lately presented the elegant and costly reprints of old English literature, edited by Rev. A. B. Grossart, and called the Fuller worthies and Chertsey worthies libraries.

In 1868 the late John Cleve Green, of New York, presented to the College $100,000, to be known as the Elizabeth Fund, in honor of his mother, Elizabeth (Van Cleve) Green, of Lawrence, New Jersey. From the income of this fund the library receives $3,000 a year, to be spent in buying books of a higher than the ordinary sort. Among other larger accessions thus procured, was the collection of Professor Adolph Trendelenberg, the metaphysical philosopher of Berlin, consisting of nearly 10,000 volumes and pamphlets. It includes 185 volumes of old editions of Aristotle and his commentaries, with a hundred modern essay in Latin on his philosophy; also, several hundred volumes of classics comparatively rare, and a large body of miscellaneous books. But, considered as an addition to the working library, it was sure to cause disappointment; being of much more value to the country than to the College.

A library cannot be said to dispense the whole benefit of which it is capable till it has a building constructed with reference to its usefulness and a librarian wholly devoted to its service. A library is like a dictionary; and a dictionary should always be at hand. It might be well if, like cathedral churches, it could stand open night and day. But no library maintains a staff of officials sufficient for continuous service. Where no assistants are provided, there must be many hours when borrowers and readers have no access. It was with a full sense of these disadvantages, that the chief benefactor of this institution, John C. Green, resolved, eight years ago, to provide a library edifice and a librarian for this College. A prominent position was therefore cleared in the middle of the campus, and the ground was broken November 10, 1872. The material chosen is a sub-roseate stone from the quarries at Ewing Township, Mercer County, New Jersey.

The central portion is hexagonal, having a diameter of sixty-four feet; while the extreme length, measured from wing to wing, is one hundred and forty feet. The drum is covered by a slated roof, surmounted by a lantern, having at the highest part a star window of colored glass, fifty feet above the ground. Thirty-two lancet windows in the sides (one in every alcove) would admit abundant light if they had not been filled with too dark a glass. The interior arrangement is novel; for the bookcases form radii. Advancing from the walls towards an open space, thirty feet wide at the center, where stands the octogonal platform and desk of the librarian. Every alternate radius is six feet shorter than the rest, securing ample space for access to the books. This plan was adopted after suggestions from Chancellor Green and Professor Shields. The western wing is occupied by a single room, having an open-timbered roof and clear-story, and was intended for the semi-annual meetings of the Trustees. It is also used as a reading-room for the Faculty. In the eastern wing are two rooms meant for the reception of new books, and their preparation for the shelves. One hundred and twenty thousand dollars were expended in the erection. The substantial completion of the work was recognized by appropriate exercises at the Commencement in 1873.

This edifice would give thorough satisfaction to the friends of the College if it were full of good books. Its whole capacity exceeds 100,00 volumes; but, as yet, it contains little more than 44,000. The first care of the new librarian was to prepare a conspectus of the library, ranged according to departments of knowledge; placing in parallel columns what he could show in each, and what important authors ought to be added to make the collection most useful to the students. It is hoped that the time is now not far off when the chasm will be filled which separates this library from those with which it is likely to be compared.

The hours at which the students are invited to resort to the library are six each day: from 10 to 12 A.M., and from 2 to 5 P.M., for reading; while books can be borrowed and returned from 12 to 1 and from 2 to 4 P.M.

During the first year after the new library was opened the daily average of borrowers was twenty-six, and the whole number of books drawn during the year was 4,000. During the year 1877-78 the daily average was fifty-three, and the total loan for the year about 13,000. This rate of increase justifies the expectation that before long the daily average may be a hundred borrowers, and the yearly loan 20,000 volumes. The number of borrowers has also increased from three hundred sixty-four to five hundred eighty-one; and a recent inquiry has discovered, that, while the proportion of fiction read is only one-third of that drawn from the popular department of the Boston public library, the percentage for the manly studies of mental and moral science, political and social philosophy, is one-seventh of the whole loan.

When the present librarian first saw this collection of books, in 1873, it consisted of about twenty thousand volumes, the Trendelenberg purchase not having been yet incorporated with it. The impression it made upon his mind during the first three years was that it was ill suited to the mental condition of the students. Nor did the annual expenditure for books, of about $3,00, promise that it would soon become attractive to them; for the wants of the professors were first to be supplied. During two years past the representatives of John C. Green have authorized the expenditure out of his estate of $25,000, in addition to the regular income of the library. Most of this has been spent, at the nomination of our professors. As the result of this liberality, the library begins to assume a creditable aspect in the departments of physical science and in the field of old English literature. Form the shelves of a gentleman long interested in the study of Anglo-Saxon, an unequalled apparatus for the acquisition of that language has just been philosophy and in German literature. In natural history, too, and in the fine arts, as well as in the history of France and of England, desirable acquisitions have been made. But it may be doubted whether the highest interests of a college are so well secured by feeding professors full with the strong meat they crave, as they might be by also nurturing in the students that love of study which is the object of all education.


 Last modified 08-May-2005