Chapin Library Custodian Volz retires after 38-year tenure

Robert Volz will retire on June 30 after 38 years at the College. Jerry Li/Photo Editor.
Robert Volz will retire on June 30 after 38 years at the College. Jerry Li/Photo Editor.

Robert Volz, custodian of the Chapin Library, will retire on June 30 after 38 years at the College.

Since becoming custodian in 1977, Volz oversaw the expansion of the Chapin Library’s collection, including the acquisition of several valuable pieces. During Volz’s tenure, the Chapin Library obtained a dozen endowments for acquisitions. In 2014, the collection moved to the new Sawyer Library and became an administrative unit of the Williams College Libraries for the first time.

“When Bob became Custodian of the Chapin Library, he was charged by President [John Wesley] Chandler to put the Chapin in the mainstream of education at Williams, and he immedi-ately began that process. I had arrived a year earlier, in 1976, and having seen how little the Chapin was being used by the College community, I found Bob’s actions very welcome indeed,” Assistant Chapin Librarian Wayne Hammond said.

Volz completed his undergraduate education at Marquette College and earned a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies degree from The University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1963. He then worked at the special collections of Northwestern, Bowdoin and the University of Rochester. In succeeding H. Richard Archer, who served from 1957 to 1977, Volz became the fifth custodian of the Chapin Library since it opened in 1923. Volz was impressed by the quality and, in particular, the diversity of the collection, which spans many subjects and time periods.

“In 1963 I went to a meeting in Baltimore of the Manuscript Society. There was a very famous coin collection with narrow cases and a tall gentleman [Archer] stood on one side, and I stood on the other, and he talked to me an hour about the Chapin Library which he ran,” Volz said. “I made up my mind that night that I wanted to run that library someday. So in 1977 when I saw a notice that he was retiring I put my name in for the job and happily for me I was the one they chose.”

When Volz arrived, the Chapin Library had only an operating budget of $800 for reference materials and supplies, provided by the College, and the $100,000 endowment provided by Alfred Clark Chapin, Class of 1869, to found the Library. The value of Chapin’s original endowment had fallen as low $1019 during the Great Depression, which limited the ability of former custodians to acquire new items. Volz secured endowments from groups and individuals to make acquisitions and lobbied the College to increase his operating budget.

“We also, at that time, had no funding to speak of, but Bob at once started to develop endowments for the Chapin,” Hammond said. “These have proved significant, and along with important acquisitions like our original Declaration of Independence broadside which came to us through Bob’s hard work, they will be a lasting legacy. It has been a privilege to be associated with these achievements.”

In 1983, a man from North Carolina donated the papers of Joseph Hewes, one of the state’s representatives to the Continental Congress in 1774, to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The donor, however, put Hewes’ letters and his copy of the Declaration of Independence up for auction at Christie’s in New York. Volz secured enough donations from alumni and friends of the College to purchase the Declaration of Independence. The Chapin Library is the only institution other than the National Archives in possession of original copies of the Dec-laration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Constitution and Bill of Rights.

“It’s one of the 26 original examples of the Declaration of Independence printed on July 4,” Volz said. “It was a legislative act that needed to be printed to take effect, so Thomas Jefferson and other signers went to the printers in Philadelphia to have these copies made and sent to towns throughout the colonies, unlike the archival copy in the National Archives that was not completed until Aug. 2. Our copy is one of the top five in terms of condition and one of the only known to belong to a signer of the Declaration.”

During Volz’s tenure, the Chapin Library’s collection expanded threefold and now holds more than 50,000 volumes and 100,000 other items. Volz was also able to lend items from the Chapin Library’s large collection of illustrations and other visual works to local museums.

“I feel pleased with the cooperation between the Chapin and exhibitions at WCMA [Williams College Museum of Art], the Clark Institute and even MASS MoCA [Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art]. That allows us to get some of our pictorial material out to the public who wouldn’t come to the Chapin,” Volz said.

Volz hopes that the College will hire more staff for the Chapin Library. Despite the ex-pansion of the College and the collection since 1923, the Chapin Library still employs only a custodian and assistant librarian.

“Bob Volz and I have worked together in the Chapin Library for all of his 38 years at Williams. For most of that time, it was just the two of us on the Chapin staff, so there has always been a lot of work to do, and to share,” Hammond said.

In particular, Volz believes the College might be able to secure an endowment for a curator of American Studies during its next capital campaign, citing the large number of works that go on sale in that area and the many classes that take advantage of the Chapin Library’s American collection.

Volz hopes to turn his attention to writing about books after he retires. One potential subject is Johan Bamler, a German illuminator and printer from the 15th century, whose well-illustrated books and manuscripts have not been thoroughly compiled and studied despite large collections at the British Library and in Munich.

“All I know is that on the first day I’ll keep the alarm clock set for the usual time and just turn off the ringer and go back to sleep. And after that we’ll see what happens. There are so many things I’d like to do,” Volz said.

The College has yet to form a committee to find Volz’s successor.