Skip to main content

Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.). Library



Northwestern University was founded in 1850; classes began in the building known as Old College, at Hinman and Davis Streets in Evanston, in 1855, with an enrollment of ten young men. During the summer of 1856, Northwestern's board of trustees allocated $1000 to create a library. Initially the library was directed by faculty members, and borrowing privileges were restricted to faculty. Professor William Godman, one of the two original faculty members (teaching Greek language and literature), was appointed the first librarian. Godman oversaw the refitting of a room on the third floor of Old College for a library, and also acquired the first books, which by June 1857 numbered 1977. Godman was succeeded in 1858 by Daniel Bonbright, professor of Latin. Over the next 12 years, under Bonbright and his successor, Louis Kistler, the library grew slowly; a title list prepared by the library's first recorded student assistant, Charles Bannister, in 1868, includes about 3000 volumes.

The arrival of the Greenleaf Collection (described below) in 1870 increased the size of Northwestern's library sevenfold and coincided with its relocation from increasingly cramped quarters in Old College to the third floor of the new University Hall, an imposing limestone structure that remains a Northwestern icon. The library's new space measured 70 by 20 feet and was filled within three years, foreshadowing the space problems that would always plague the university library. In the following years the collection continued to be developed aggressively. In addition to acquiring libraries from retiring or deceased faculty, significant expansion was made possible, in 1876, by the designation of the library as a depository of U.S. government publications. By 1894, close to one-third of the library's collections consisted of government publications.

Student protests over limited access to the collection and over the chronic absence of the faculty-librarians led to the introduction of very circumscribed student borrowing privileges by the end of the 1880s. The practice of naming a faculty member as university librarian in ended in 1889; two senior student assistants—George Wire (1883) and Lodilla Ambrose (1887-1908)—went on to direct the university library. In 1890, university president Henry Wade Rogers convinced the trustees to finance a new library building, and in 1894, with much assistance from librarian Ambrose, the Orrington Lunt Library was dedicated and named after its major donor.

In the following two decades, Northwestern growing enrollment made the provision of first-class library services a high priority. Ambrose's successor, Walter Lichtenstein, had been a bibliographer at Harvard; at Northwestern, he worked to catalog hitherto “hidden” collections—roughly 40,000 volumes in his first few years alone—and to expand the collections. He conducted book-buying trips in Europe and, from 1913 to 1915, to South America, journeys that made possible the growth of Northwestern's book collections from 75,000 to 116,000 during his 10-year tenure—not counting the further growth of government publications from 50,000 to 85,000. Lichtenstein was replaced in 1919 by Theodore W. Koch, who oversaw the construction of the Charles Deering Library, which opened in January 1933 with a capacity of 500,000 volumes (not including government publications). Koch's reputation facilitated the gift of important books and collections to the university. Among other purchases, Koch acquired the collection now known as the Biblioteca Femina–3000 volumes assembled for the International Congress of Women, held during Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition. Koch also exploited the depressed book market of the 1930s. During his 22 years as university librarian, which ended with his unexpected death in 1941, Koch saw the trebling of the collection from 120,000 to 377,000 volumes.

The Greenleaf (Schulze) Collection, which was accessioned and numbered separately from the other collections, represents the first great gift to the University Library, and one of the library's most fortuitous acquisitions. Northwestern professor of Latin Language and Literature Daniel Bonbright happened to be in Europe in 1869, where he heard that the library of Johannes Schulze had come up for sale. Schulze was one of the top members of the Prussian Ministry of Public Instruction and a much-feared book collector. At the time of his death, his personal library held some 11,246 volumes, and about 9,000 unbound pamphlets. The latter are chiefly dissertations from the German universities. Schulze's collection was particularly strong in the Greek and Latin classics; indeed, the collection contains 126 first editions of Greek authors and 8 first editions of Latin authors. Schulze had died earlier that year, but his son proved more interested in equestrian pursuits than bibliographical ones, and accordingly put the collection up for purchase. Bonbright, after traveling to Berlin to inspect the collection, had a unique opportunity to purchase the 20,000 volume collection for $7,000. Luther Greenleaf, an important landowner in Chicago and Evanston and supporter of Northwestern, supplied the funds—fortunately the purchase was made before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which wiped out many of Greenleaf's holdings. The collection arrived at Northwestern in July, 1870, where it became one of the foundational collections of Northwestern's library.