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Yale University Library News, Events and Exhibits: The Heart of Yale: Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of Sterling Memorial Library The Heart of Yale: Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of Sterling Memorial Library

It was in 1918 that an official announcement was made that was to bring significant transformation to the center of the Yale campus. John William Sterling, a wealthy Yale alumnus, had bequeathed $17 million with the only stipulation that Yale build “at least one enduring useful and architecturally beautiful edifice, which will constitute a fitting memorial of my gratitude to and affection for my Alma Mater.” At the time, University Librarian Andrew Keogh was coping with a collection that had doubled in size since 1905 to over one million volumes, and happily Yale decided that the principal memorial should be Sterling Memorial Library. 75 years later, preparations are now underway to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Sterling Memorial Library and the foundation of the ‘Yale Library Associates’ who were also formed that same year.

The inaugural event is the opening of a special exhibit in Sterling Memorial Library at the beginning of September. Curated by Judith Ann Schiff, Chief Research Archivist at Yale University Library, the exhibit will feature selected renderings by the architect, James Gamble Rogers, photographs of clay models of the ornamental sculpture by René Chambellan and stained glass windows by Owen Bonawit, and letters and documents by University Librarian Andrew Keogh, Yale President James R. Angell, and early champions of the library. A selection of photographs, including the depiction of various stages of the interior and exterior construction of the library and documentation of the opening and dedication and the very first meeting of the Yale Library Associates in 1931, will all be on display.

By the opening of the academic year 1930/31, Sterling Memorial Library, although not officially completed, was in operation. For nearly twelve years university administrators, librarians, and faculty had worked cooperatively with the architect, James Gamble Rogers, to create the finest library possible and a "fitting memorial" to its benefactor John William Sterling, Yale 1864. For Andrew Keogh and his staff, it was an enormous task to organize a central library from three core buildings and collections scattered throughout the campus. His only disappointment was that his request for a 5 million-volume facility resulted in only 3.5 million. In 1930 the library with a seating capacity for 2000 readers was completed at an expenditure of nearly $8 million, with an additional maintenance fund of $2 million provided by the Sterling Trustees.

While the building was taking shape, English professor Chauncey Brewster Tinker worked to encourage the donation of collections and funds. In a landmark address to the alumni in 1924, the beloved professor stated: “There are three distinguishing marks of a university: a group of students, a corps of instructors, and a collection of books, and of these three the most important is the collection of books.” He reminded the alumni that no university or civilization could exist without “the recorded thought of the past,” and recounted Keogh’s fear that the magnificence of the library building would overshadow its purpose. The librarian, only half in jest, had suggested that a motto be inscribed over the entrance, “This is not the Yale Library. That is inside.” Tinker then pointed out to those alumni whose primary interest was teaching rather than research, “you must have teachers here who are men and learned men,” and “a library of millions of volumes, with strange books in it, out-of-the-way books, rare books, and expensive books.” The alumni listened to Tinker and Keogh, and donated generously and thus the association of the “Yale Library Associates” was born.

Since the opening of the Old Library in the 1840s the collection had grown from 20,000 volumes to nearly 2,000,000 by the time Sterling Memorial Library opened in 1930. Carved by the entrance are the words, "The library is the heart of the university," and the heart of the library is the collection of originally forty books contributed by Yale's founding ministers. To honor them, the seventeen surviving volumes were hand-carried by librarians in a ceremonial procession from the old library and placed as the first books in the new library. As Sterling’s lofty book tower and inner spaces extended the observer’s vision, they also seemed to expand the concepts of what a great library might contain. New types of library materials were acquired including manuscript collections, maps, wartime ephemera, photographs, and sound recordings.

At the dedication in April 1931, President James Rowland Angell praised “the librarian, the architect, and the builder" who "conjured up a dream of surpassing majesty and then translated it into innumerable ingenious and gracious forms.… Here is incarnate the intellectual and spiritual life of Yale." His vision of the library as “a very temple of the mind" has been fulfilled. For 75 years, Sterling Memorial Library has been and will continue to be the heart of the university, a magnetic force, attracting outstanding research materials and scholars and motivating their interaction in an inspirational setting.

The upcoming anniversary season will extend from October-April, marking both the building and the dedication of the Sterling Memorial Library. In addition to the 75th exhibit which will be on view until the end of January, the anniversary celebrations will also include a variety of special events. The “Treasures of the Yale Library” series will include special tours, lectures and open days catering to students, faculty, staff and the general public.

Location: SML

Start Date: 08/22/2005


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Page Last Updated: 4/21/2014
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