A look at the history and resources of Chapin Library

If you think nothing exciting ever happens around here, consider this: the College’s Chapin Library, the bastion of rare books and manuscripts nestled on the second floor of Stetson Hall, was once the victim of a crime so nefarious that it made the cover of True Detective magazine.

In 1940, a visitor bearing a false letter of recommendation from the president of Middlebury College absconded with a 1623 first-folio edition of The Works of William Shakespeare. The crook, who became a grand larcenist upon crossing the state line into New York, was discovered a few days later after boasting of his crime to a fellow inmate in a Buffalo prison, where he was staying overnight on a charge of public drunkenness. J. Edgar Hoover’s letter outlining the FBI’s role in the book’s recovery is now a part of the Library’s collection.

Such follies could not have been foreseen by Alfred Clark Chapin, a graduate of the class of 1869 and a trustee of the College, when he first conceived of the library in 1915. Armed with six rare books that Chapin had recently purchased from him, prominent New York book dealer James F. Drake appeared before the president and Board of Trustees with Chapin’s proposal to create a new manuscript and rare book library for the College. According to Chapin Library Custodian Bob Volz, “Chapin hoped that he could expose students to the original sources through early editions and manuscripts of the people, the events and the ideas that formed our civilization.”

The collection has grown since Chapin’s original contribution and now stands at around 50,000 volumes, with 50,000 additional pieces, such as letters, prints and photographs. Its total value is $150 million. The Library has a remarkably wide range of holdings, including 550 books printed before 1501, children’s books dating back to the 1660s and a manuscript from Charlemagne’s scriptorium at Tours originating from around 800 AD. Volz, who has been custodian since 1977, says he takes particular pride in the Library’s holdings of books on the history of science and medicine, as well as in the first-edition texts, autographed material and periodical publications of such authors as Walt Whitman, Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner.

Among the collection’s most valuable items are George Mason’s working copy of the Constitution, which includes on its reverse side Mason’s handwritten objections to the document; a three-and-a-half foot tall “elephant” folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, worth close to $3.5 million; and George Washington’s copy of the Federalist Papers, given to him by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, and donated to the College by Herbert Allen ’62.

Despite the quality, range and accessibility of the Library’s holdings, few students take advantage of its resources. Many seem not to know that it even exists, while others have only visited it when required to for a class.

Assistant Librarian Wayne Hammond notes that problem is exacerbated by the fact that campus publications tend to devote little coverage to the Library, but that it is in fact “a major art resource in Williamstown.” Volz said he would like to see the trend change: “We welcome students. We want them to come. This is the only major rare book collection–probably anywhere in the world–whose primary purpose is undergraduate instruction.”

Students can examine the Washington Federalist Papers up close during the Library’s upcoming exhibition of its Washington holdings, which will run from December 12 through February 22. The display will feature a number of pieces, including the ledgers of Lawrence Lewis, one of the two chief executors of Washington’s estate, which document the payments made to the doctor who attended Washington in his final days, for the cakes at Washington’s funeral and to buy suitable clothes for Washington’s servant to wear to the burial. Also on view will be a written order of Nathaniel Green from December 19, 1776, which documents Washington’s instruction to his boats to cross the Delaware River.

The Washington exhibit comes on the heels of a recently concluded display of the works of illustrator Pauline Baynes, best known for drawing the original pictures for C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The exhibit, which included 50 children’s books illustrated by Baynes, was the Library’s contribution to “Words are Wonderful,” a celebration of children’s literature in Williamstown.

The Library is open to students five days a week, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Since only ten percent of the Library’s holdings is catalogued on FRANCIS, Volz advises that students should begin a search for a rare book by first tapping into his and Hammond’s collective knowledge.

“Give us a try,” he said. “It’s amazing how often we can come up with something.”