Chapin library guards unparalleled treasure trove of books

I can still remember my tour guide pulling her trump card the first time I visited the College as a wide-eyed prospective student. I had just name-dropped a rival school when she countered: “Did you know that Williams College owns a print of the Declaration of Independence?” Beat that, other well-endowed institutions! It became another status symbol of the elite education that the College offered, but in my four years here, I never took advantage of the opportunity that was marketed to me until I trekked to the far corner of campus and decided to get my tuition’s worth.

Tucked away in the temporary quarters of the Southworth Schoolhouse, the Chapin Library of Rare Books houses a literary and historical treasure trove, with some works dating back all the way to the 15th century. The original printings of the founding U.S. documents are the most famous donations to Chapin Library, but the library includes everything from books on witchcraft to a box designed by well-known art director Herman Rosse. The Library and its small staff cover more ground than its close quarters would have you believe, and even has its own blog, Vintage Points.

It’s important to note that while the College Archive and Chapin Library usually share the use of Stetson Hall, they have different missions. In a general rare book library, much like a liberal arts student, you have to know a bit of everything if you want to stay ahead. “It’s a constant learning experience,” Assistant Librarian Wayne Hammond told me. “What we do here is not just wait for someone to come in, and then, ‘Here’s the book and good luck.’ We explain, interpret and do class presentations.”

The collection has expanded since Alfred Clark Chapin thought that introducing undergraduates to a world of rare and odd learning material could prove especially educational. But does the novel idea in 1923 still hold in 2012?

In the wake of digital archives, it can be difficult convincing students to opt for the dusty over the digital; it is often unclear to our generation why we should prefer researching in a more inconvenient and out-of-reach manner when most information is just a click away. To Hammond, there is something inherently powerful about the printed word. In his 37 years as a librarian at Chapin Library, Hammond has worked under six College presidents and welcomed countless students to his dusty abode. There’s a reason he has stuck around so long; ever since reading The Lord of the Rings as a junior in high school, Hammond has been a voracious collector of books, especially those by J.R.R. Tolkien. Speaking of just The Hobbit alone, Hammond and his wife together own 204 copies in English and 301 copies in translation. It’s this kind of intellectual attachment to rare books that makes a trip to Chapin Library exhilarating.

On my first trip I was instantly reminded of the tactile appeal of holding history in my hands. As a young bookworm, I would wear out my books until the binding could no longer withstand my love for them. In the course of studying for biology exams, I’ve fallen asleep on top of books, hoping to learn through osmosis. Looking around the yellowed pages that surround the library’s reading room, I felt the same power of being surrounded by voices untold. The library is also an architectural feat in and of itself: With around 19,000 books in total, the amount of imagination that shelving requires can be applied to Chapin Library’s organization, or as Hammond puts it, “how to maximize the potential and not collapse the floors.”

Unlike at other museums, no gloves are necessary in Chapin. With bare hands you can gently thumb back into history. You can be the first to interpret the cursive of a letter. Did he mean ligation or litigation? In a digital transcript, the thinking has been done for you. But, confronted by archaic penmanship, I must squint and decide: “litigation.”

“They sought the best, nothing vulgar,” is the motto of past stewards of Chapin Library. Upon the completion of Stetson Hall’s renovation, the archives and rare book collection will move back to their former home and once again be fully open to the public. Past exhibits like Jack Kerouac and the Beats: Fifty Years of On the Road speak to the wide variety of materials available at Chapin Library. And in terms of quality of reference material available, Chapin Library is one of the finest collections in all of academia.