Fridays with Fred: legacy of the campus library

History of the Beloit College library.

Campus library service is almost as old as the college itself. In 1848, the Beloit College trustees wrote in their first annual report that “a library of between seven and eight hundred volumes has been procured, principally by donations of books.” Professor Joseph Emerson served as the first librarian and his tenure lasted nearly 50 years, until 1895. The first location of the college library was in a room on the south side of the third floor of Middle College.

When the library moved to Memorial Hall, pictured below (now Logan Museum) in 1869, it was open two hours on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. Aside from a small wood-burning stove in the librarian’s inner office, there was no heat. As President Edward Dwight Eaton noted in his Historical Sketches of Beloit College, students did not yet use the library as a study place:

“There was little encouragement during the greater part of the college year for the student to do more than secure a book and make a hasty retreat from the chill that reigned within the stone walls of the building. The concept of the library as an intellectual workshop had not yet won its way in the academic world.”

By the turn of the century, increased student use and rapidly growing book and periodical collections made it clear that the college must have a building specifically designed as a library. In addition, in 1888, the government had designated the library as a Federal Depository Library. The college called on famous journalist Dr. Horace White, class of 1853, who had among his personal friends Andrew Carnegie, the generous and well-known benefactor of libraries. At the request of Dr. White, Carnegie offered to give the college a new library. Ceremonial groundbreaking took place in December 1903, with the building completed by May 1904 at a cost of $50,000. Architects Patton and Miller of Chicago planned and designed the Carnegie Library (now known as WAC) in Renaissance style, “cut from Bedford stone and thoroughly modern in every detail,” providing Beloit with one of the finest small college libraries of its day.

As the “Carnegie years” commenced, the total book collection numbered 36,268 volumes. Meanwhile, open hours continued to increase and even included Sunday afternoons. However, as the college grew and as students flocked to the library for study space, the “new” Carnegie Library quickly ran out of room. By 1931, the college had created two satellite libraries in order to relieve overcrowded conditions and to accommodate special needs: the Emerson Art Library in the Wright Art Hall and the Chamberlin Science Library in Pearsons Hall.

In 1955, Director of Libraries H. Vail Deale asked President Miller Upton to appoint a faculty committee to assist him in the study and planning of facilities for the future. By February of 1960, members of the board of trustees gave or pledged half of the necessary $1.2 million. In April, the Colonel Robert H. Morse Foundation donated $443,000, the largest single gift in Beloit’s history to that time. Groundbreaking took place in March 1961. Chicago architectural firm Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett designed the new library, completed in 1962 and named to honor Colonel Morse, whose family firm, Fairbanks Morse & Co., was for many years Beloit’s largest industry. At that time, the collection numbered 178,000 volumes.

Morse Library added greatly to Beloit’s ability to provide its students and faculty with modern, comprehensive library service, as well as space to house its ever-expanding collections and such new facilities as a music-listening room, conference rooms, archives, special collections areas, and a map lounge. The air-conditioned building’s open stack plan, numerous study carrels, and lounge and reading areas on three levels were designed to bring books and people together in new ways and in a comfortable and attractive setting.

Although not one of the campus’s architectural treasures, the new Morse Library became a distinctive destination, embodying the essence of Beloit College as a fine educational institution. The library supported and extended the academic program and it represented scholarship, both in its fruits and new possibilities. At the college’s opening vespers service on Sept. 23, 1962, President Miller Upton spoke eloquently about the importance of the library to the campus community:

“We have demonstrated in this new building of ours that a college library, far from being a mausoleum in which dead bodies are interred, is rather an intellectual Valhalla where the ideas and souls of mankind’s heroes throughout the ages are given eternal life – a place to which the living may repair, not to pay dutiful respects, but to enter into full communion and communication with the minds of others…”

After a quarter-century of heavy use, however, the library needed refurbishing. Further, the needs of those who use a good college library were evolving and by 1990, the rapid growth of information technology produced a plethora of fresh possibilities, from extensive computerized databases and new communications systems to increasingly sophisticated methods of linking scholars worldwide. That same year, the collection numbered 350,000 volumes.

Chicago architects, DeStefano/Goettsch oversaw the extensive $5 million renovation, which included moving the “front door” to the center of the building to accommodate the interior design and expanding space for the college archives and special collections, an AV-media area, group study rooms and faculty carrels, as well as the Kohler Science Library which moved from Mayer Hall. Vibrant green carpeting replaced linoleum and softer lighting replaced fluorescent glare. Rededicated on May 11, 1991, the Col. Robert H. Morse Library and Richard Black Information Center was now a much more comfortable place and a popular haven for study and work.

January 10, 2013

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