Rare books curator reflects on libraries' past and future
"Let's start with a bit of history, shall we?" Curator of Princeton's rare books Stephen Ferguson asked. It seemed an appropriate beginning.
As I stepped foot in Ferguson's Firestone office for our tour of the library, I immediately felt the overwhelming presence of history permeating the room.
The walls were lined with shelves of books — some with yellowed pages, others with leather binding and still more carefully placed in boxes to keep the spines intact.
And thus, we started our tour, not within the hidden rooms and staircases of Firestone — which would come later — but rather with photos, drawings and maps of Nassau Hall.
"The history of libraries is the history of very elaborate housekeeping," Ferguson said, smiling as he described Princeton's first library.
The curator pulled up a chair to his computer and started his power point program which featured original photos and artwork of the early University libraries.
Images of Nassau Hall, Stanhope Hall, Chancellor Green and East Pyne flashed across the screen while he commented on the qualities that characterized each library.
Ferguson commented on the "glory of the detail" in Princeton's first freestanding library at Chancellor Green and described the light filtering through the windows of the Faculty Room in Nassau Hall.
These original libraries were unusual enough to attract tourists, many of whom described them in their travel diaries.
When Nassau Hall housed the University's books in the late 18th century, the collection was arranged by volume size because of limited shelving space. Thus, when looking for a particular book, a student or professor needed to know both its author and size.
However, by the time the library moved into the Faculty Room after the fire in 1802, "intellectual content drove the arrangement," Ferguson said.
Later, when the University's library was transferred to Chancellor Green, the Faculty Room became a natural history library, complete with an assortment of mineral collections and stuffed alligators. Though Ferguson knew the precise dates of each library's construction and even how the shelves were arranged, he remained awed by the constantly evolving uses of these academic structures.
While the Faculty Room was a general-purpose storage space, the East Pyne library featured rooms used specifically for exhibits, seminars and reading.
As University students began to maintain their own book collections in their dorm rooms in the late 19th century, University libraries emerged as popular places to study.
One photo in particular depicted a student in a black suit reading his leather volume in front of the fireplace.
Today's Firestone Library represents what Ferguson described as a "sociable library," emphasizing approachability and friendliness through its architecture. The building was designed to resemble a rambling country house with an array of reading rooms in which students can interact.
Ferguson added that these libraries encouraged socialization among students.
"Learning is more than the study of textbooks," Ferguson said. "It is conversation with learned colleagues."
Ferguson expressed concern for the future of libraries as they add coffee shops and reconcile their comfort accomodations with the demand for storage.
"Now, for 'Behind the Façade,'" said Ferguson, keys in hand, as we began climbing the marble stairs to the fourth floor. Unmarked on library maps and not accessible by elevator, Ferguson referred to the fourth floor as the "family attic" of the rare books department.
The description perfectly suited the cold and drafty, yet glorious room, with frost covering the tall windows overlooking the rooftops of Princeton.
The interior of the tower — the top of Firestone — was donated by the class of 1911 and features wood paneling and a grand chandelier. Though the room was originally intended to be a reading room, it was soon considered too small for that purpose.
"The domestic and efficient have collided" Ferguson said, chuckling as he showed the various and assorted items.
The tower is a treasure trove, with a collection of plaster death masks sitting alongside one of the first Remington typewriters on a shelf opposite a trench shovel from World War I.
Dust flew off the artifacts as he picked up a small statue in the corner of the room to analyze its composition.
Ferguson then eyed a rather large box leaning against the shelves. "Ah, yes," he said. "The stuffed fish."
We then descended to the largest floor, the C floor. Ferguson described the atrium that used to be open and filled with daffodils and the special "reading nooks" interspersed throughout the labyrinth of dark hallways and closed doors.
At one point, we paused to glance out the window simply to gather our bearings after winding through the rows of senior carrels.
Ferguson led the way to the "loading dock," where five full-time staff members were in constant motion delivering books to branch libraries.
We peered in at the extensive preservation department and the vast general catalog unit before trekking back to Ferguson's office in rare books.
Ferguson, once again surrounded by the familiar array of volumes on his shelves, reflected on the future of libraries and how the definition of the library — so often changed in Princeton's history — will continue to evolve.
"A library provides a transformative environment," Ferguson said, pausing for a moment. "I hope we can do that in the 21st century."
Reader Comments (0)
No comments yet. Be the first to post your opinion on this article.