Beinecke Timeline: The First Fifty Years
Celebrating the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library with highlights from the past 50 years.
In the late 1950s, interest in rare books, the extraordinary philanthropy of the Beineckes, the University’s pressing need for a special collections library, and the genius of architect Gordon Bunshaft came together to give us the Beinecke Library.
— From Barbara A. Shailor’s introduction to The Beinecke Library of Yale University (2003)
Under the leadership of Herman W. Liebert, the Beinecke Library began its extraordinary history of gathering significant collections and notable single manuscripts. Just six months into its new life, the library acquired a large gathering of papyri. Two of the Beinecke’s best known manuscripts entered the collections during these years: the Vinland Map and the Voynich Manuscript. During these years of student unrest, the Hewitt Quadrangle, soon known as Beinecke Plaza, was the scene of anti-war protests, sit-ins, and all manner of student gatherings, from groovy to angry.
While the Beinecke Library’s public profile was not as high in this decade as it would become in the next, the stream of notable acquisitions continued, from 16th century printings, to Western Americana, to the archives of important modernist writers.
With the appointment of Ralph W. Franklin as director in 1982, the Beinecke Library began a rapid expansion on many fronts: acquisitions, staff, technology, and public profile. The Technical Services and Public (now Access) Services departments were established, and in 1984 the Administrative Services unit was formed. By 1986, the Beinecke had appointed three new curators. Plans began in 1984 to address the backlog of uncataloged manuscripts, culminating in the formation of the Manuscript Unit in 1986. The digital era began with machine-readable cataloging records, and by the mid-80s, computers had revolutionized all aspects of the Beinecke’s activities. The Visiting Fellowship program was launched, making the library’s resources ever more available to scholars around the world.
Significant anniversaries were celebrated in exhibitions and related public events: centenaries of Carl Van Vechten (1980), James Joyce (1981), Ezra Pound (1985), and H.D. (1986), as well as Samuel Johnson’s bicentennial (1984), the sesquicentennial of the Texas Revolution (1986), and Alexander Pope’s tercentennial (1988).
Under the direction of Ralph Franklin, the Beinecke continued to press forward on various fronts—physical plant, technology, acquisitions, fellowships, exhibitions, events—becoming an ever great presence on campus. A major construction project, one of many over the ensuing years, transformed the lobby area of the library: the microfilm reading room became a classroom, and the old card catalog area was transformed into staff space. Anniversaries were celebrated, from the five-hundredth of the press established in Venice by Aldus Manutius to the fiftieth of canine movie star Lassie.
In the late 1990s, the Beinecke forged ahead into collecting photography while adding steadily to its traditional strengths in rare books and manuscripts. In a period marked by outreach, new endeavors included the O’Neill at Yale project, Master Classes for Yale students, and the Digital Library. A major building renovation (1999 to 2001) reconfigured the Wall Street stacks to provide classroom and staff space. Compact shelving dramatically increased capacity, and the underground area to the west of the building was reconfigured to provide additional shelving and a new home for the library’s archivists.
Anniversary exhibitions and celebrations included the 400th anniversary of Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queene (1996); the 350th anniversary of the birth of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1997); Goethe’s 250th birthday (1999); sesquicentennials of the Mexican War (1996) and the California Gold Rush (1998); and Thornton Wilder’s centenary (1997).
After the retirement of director Ralph Franklin, Patricia C. Willis, Barbara A. Shailor, and Frank M. Turner led the library in turn through the early years of the new century. Two concert series were established, as well as regular poetry readings and a lecture series on book history. The waterproofing membrane under the plaza was replaced (2005). The Beinecke addressed space needs by adding a new manuscript processing area at 121 Whitney Avenue (2006) and ts own module at the Library Shelving Facility (2008). In 2003, the first archival collection to include a computer entered the library, and by the end of the decade, archivists were harvesting information from the working computers of authors whose papers the Library collects.
A spate of literary and historical anniversaries kept librarians busy, arranging exhibitions and public events: John Dryden’s tercentenary (2000), the centenary of Guiseppe Verdi’s death (2001), Hector Berlioz’s bicentennial (2003), the tercentennial of John Locke’s death (2004), the 250th anniversary Henry Fielding’s death (2004), Petrarch’s 700th birthday (2004), and Alexis de Tocqueville’s bicentennial (2005), and more noted below.
As the Beinecke enters its second half century, it faces challenges both old and new: ever accelerating technological change, the maintenance of an aging physical plant, the need for space as staff and holdings grow, the change from paper to digitally based books and archives. The Yale University Library mourned the passing of Beinecke director Frank Turner in 2010. E.C. Schroeder is appointed to lead the Beinecke Library.