Back to the Books
Billings Library’s future rooted in its past
- By Tom Weaver
On the first deeply cold morning of winter, the front hall of Billings Library is a warm, quiet refuge as Bill Lipke, professor emeritus of art history, points out details in one of his favorite campus buildings. During Lipke’s years teaching, Billings was a field trip into nineteenth-century American architectural history just steps away. He notes the hammerbeam trusses that suggest railroad trestles, the soaring ceiling of the Apse, the dark paneling lending to the hushed sense of a sacred space. “Standing here, you half expect a bunch of monks to walk out and chant,” he says.
A week later, it’s back to Billings for a tour of the building with Jeff Marshall, director of UVM Libraries Special Collections, which will be housed in the building’s next incarnation. While Marshall appreciates the history and antique grandeur upstairs, we’re here to talk about the future. Turning a corner in a downstairs hallway in the Billings addition, a generic everyplace of beige linoleum and fluorescent light, he stops and spreads his arms wide. “Le pièce de résistance,” Marshall says quietly.
It seems for a moment as if he’s kidding. Perhaps a bit in the delivery, but his sentiment is sincere. Down here, it’s all about space—vast square footage for Special Collections and University Archives that will double the current cramped quarters in Bailey/Howe Library. Understandable that a librarian would be moved by such a thing.
That old duo form and function are at work in Billings, whether considering the library’s original use or its next as home to Special Collections, the Carolyn and Leonard Miller Center for Holocaust Studies, and the Center for Research on Vermont. While the architectural splendor of the core Billings Library will be preserved and updated with space for collections, exhibits, study, classes, and events, that vast space below will centralize research resources critical to university faculty, students, and the state’s citizens.
Regarding form, little has changed to the 1885 sandstone face of this building that Bill Lipke calls “a pure little gem.” Walking up those russet front steps and under the ornately carved archway is to experience a building design that, in Lipke’s words, “makes you immediately respectful for what is inside.”
Before the library, there were the books. Frederick Billings, UVM Class of 1844, was a classic American tycoon of his day, a man who made his fortune as a lawyer in the California Gold Rush and later as president of Northern Pacific Railroad. You know him. Robust, bearded, pocket-watched, his portrait hangs in a gilded frame over the fireplace in the UVM library that bears his name.
Billings was a friend and admirer of George Perkins Marsh, statesman, scholar, Vermonter, and a pioneer of environmental thought. Marsh hoped that his impressive twelve-thousand volume personal library could become part of his state university’s collection. But he lacked the financial resources to simply donate it, and the university could not afford to purchase it. In stepped Billings, who bought the books, gave them to his alma mater, and made it clear that a grand collection deserved a grand home. With an initial pledge of $75,000, he set plans in motion with President Matthew Buckham. The objective, as Buckham put it, was to build a library “worthy of Oxford University.”
Such ambition would require a sublime architect. At Billings’ urging, Buckham contacted the Boston firm of Henry Hobson Richardson, one of the greatest American architects of that, or any, era for the job. His style, which came to be known as Richardsonian Romanesque, had been used to commanding effect in projects such as Trinity Church on Boston’s Copley Square, the state capitol in Albany, New York, and smaller municipal libraries in Massachusetts cities such as Quincy and Woburn. (While Richardson’s name is firmly connected with Billings Library, it’s a less familiar fact that landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame, designed the original footpaths around the building.)
Letters in UVM archives reveal the interaction among donor, president, and architect as the three men worked to create a plan that would find that often elusive mesh of vision and economy. The process, well-documented by Laurel Ginter Broughton ’75 G’82 in the winter 1984 issue of the UVM magazine, was a somewhat contentious one, with Buckham generally acting as intermediary between Billings and Richardson.
July 3, 1893, Billings to Buckham: “That Library must be all right everyway—It bears my name! It is to be for all time. Are you sure the Marsh Apse is large enough? Let us make it all lovely inside as well as outside. A few pennies more better be put into it, rather than anything should be wanting.”
Loveliness versus pennies, the trade-off bedeviled Billings whose desire for grandeur was offset by his core Yankee thrift and a certain suspicion of excess in Richardson—“a very extravagant man.” Ultimately, Billings’ gift would exceed $100,000 as a tower here or stone carving there gave way to a feasible plan that would prove to be Richardson’s only academic library. The architect died in 1886 at age forty-seven, just a year after Billings’ dedication. Frederick Billings himself passed away in 1890, leaving a significant bequest for the library’s care.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century, Billings Library’s next act will strongly hearken back to the beginnings. The Great Hall of the front lobby will be a crossroads and informal gathering space for visitors; the Apse will have central space for events and Special Collections exhibits in the alcoves (fondly remembered by generations of students cramming for exams); Marsh Lounge, behind the central fireplace, will be a classroom and meeting space; and the north reading room will provide tables for researchers to work and shelving for some of Special Collections most-used materials.
Brooks Buxton ’56 is among the many alumni who have memories from Billings’ seventy-six-year run as the university library. A stalwart supporter of both Special Collections and the library renovations, he fondly recalls the welcoming feeling of stepping into the front hall on a cold day, crossing paths with influential professors, having the lessons of the classroom continue around the card catalog.
“In the reading room, the balcony above, you felt a sense of presence,” he says. “For a Vermont country boy, this was what a library was supposed to look like. Surrounded by those books, I’d settle right down to my studies.”
Two centers also slated for Billings in next era
In 2006 UVM received a major gift from Carolyn and Leonard Miller ’51 that enabled the university to expand its Holocaust Studies faculty and programs significantly. Billings Library will be a fitting home for the Carolyn and Leonard Miller Center for Holocaust Studies, in keeping with the vision of the original building as a statement on “the advantages of broad scholarship and culture.” The center promotes scholarship, education, and public awareness about the events that brought about, constitute, and continue to issue from the Holocaust. One of the great founding figures of the field, the late Professor Raul Hilberg, spent nearly his entire academic career, from 1956 to 1991, on the UVM political science faculty. During these years, Hilberg published his seminal work, The Destruction of the European Jews.
Established in 1975, the Center for Research on Vermont has grown to become a statewide resource. Comprising an interdisciplinary network of scholars, the center serves a number of constituencies, including state government, public schools, higher education, museums, cultural and social agencies, and the general public. Its network of researchers encompasses academics, independent scholars, policy makers, and field workers. The center’s annual “Vermonter Poll” serves as a statistical snapshot of the state’s population, providing critical information for state and municipal programs. The center’s longstanding close partnership with Special Collections will be enhanced and solidified with the co-location in Billings.
Both centers will be located on the second level that surrounds the long north-wing reading room, space that was used for library stacks originally and as office space for student activities staff when Billings was the student center.
When many of those very books return to Billings Library, they’ll include the original George Perkins Marsh collection that inspired the sandstone and mortar. Another historic link will trace through Henry Hobson Richardson’s grandson David Richardson, who gave UVM some three thousand volumes from his own personal collection, rare and first editions that range from the classical period to studies of modern architecture.
While the many valuable and historic books and documents of Special Collections are treated with great care (climate control is one reason Jeff Marshall celebrates that “pièce de résistance” downstairs), they are hardly tucked away untouched.
Marshall stresses that this is a working collection. “The context we can provide as library specialists makes the collection more useful to people,” he says. “Really, the whole focus of our efforts, which includes everything from cataloging to doing conservation work on books and papers, is focused on how we can help people use this stuff.”
UVM Special Collections recently marked fifty years of sharing the signature books, papers, and artifacts that make up the collection. In 1962, when John Buechler was hired as the first head of the department, the collection was created from the rare books and other Vermont materials from Billings Library and the James B. Wilbur collection of Vermont research materials from the Fleming Museum.
Five decades later, Special Collections’ holdings now include 80,000 books and pamphlets, approximately 200,000 photographs and other images, upwards of 7,500 maps, and some 10,000 linear feet of Vermont manuscripts. You’ll find George Washington’s signed copy of The Contrast, the play by Royall Tyler that’s considered the first comedy written and professionally produced in America; hundreds of Vermont soldiers’ letters and diaries from the Civil War; digital images of 1910-1960 Burlington taken by photographer Louis L. McAllister; one of the best collections of artists’ books in the country; and a new gift to the collection last semester: a sombrero owned by noted American poet Hart Crane.
To celebrate Special Collections’ fiftieth anniversary, Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress, gave a talk in Billings on “The Value of Special Collections in the Twenty-first Century.” Even though the Library of Congress is, obviously, nice digs for a librarian and his collection, Dimunation joked that even he was a bit envious of the Billings Library space.
“It’s an extremely important gesture on the part of any kind of academic institution that they create the right kind of home for this research,” Dimunation said. “It shows that there’s an investment in the future of working with real materials, which is extremely important to the academic program. As libraries, more and more, become purveyors of information, it’s fundamentally important that they carry forward, as well, the experience of working with the actual, physical object.”
Philanthropy key to Billings project
When Frederick Billings, UVM Class of 1844, pledged his financial support to his alma mater to build the campus library that bears his name, he shared his hope that “others of her children will remember her with gifts.” Today, Billings’ legacy and the desire to ensure that future generations will continue to enjoy this treasured landmark have motivated support from a number of generous donors.
A major gift in 2006 from Leonard ’51 and Carolyn Miller enabled the university to expand its Holocaust Studies program significantly, and that funding will also take a central role in the renovation of Billings Library, future home of the Carolyn and Leonard Miller Center for Holocaust Studies, the Center for Research on Vermont, and Special Collections. More recently, Richard ’63 and Pamela Ader have given $1 million toward the Billings Library project. uvm.edu/vq/15366.
Many additional donors have stepped forward to help build funding for the Billings Library project, which President Tom Sullivan listed among top priorities for investment in a November report to the UVM Board of Trustees. More than $4 million of the $9 million needed for the project has been raised.
“As the University of Vermont Foundation raises funds to renovate Billings Library, we look to individuals whose generosity will create a dynamic, scholarly setting,” Mara Saule, dean of Libraries, says. “With their help we can make the story of Vermont’s myriad contributions to the world accessible to students, faculty, Vermonters, and researchers from around the globe.”
Saule also notes the ripple effect of the project beyond what it will mean for Billings. The move will open up precious space and options at well-used Bailey/Howe Library, where some eight thousand students pass through the door each day.
There are a number of opportunities for interested alumni and friends to contribute to the Billings Library Renovation Project. For information, please contact Shane Jacobson at the UVM Foundation, 802-656-0518, Shane.Jacobson@uvm.edu.
The Library of Congress librarian, whose recent projects have included the restoration of Thomas Jefferson’s library, continued, “Materials from the past have a certain resonance, and that resonance cannot be conveyed digitally and doesn’t transfer through a photograph,” he says. “It only works when it’s in the hands of a reader in a setting in which people can explain and talk about the meaning and value of that object.”
Mark Madigan G’87, professor of English at Nazareth College, experienced that resonance firsthand as a graduate student at UVM. When Professor Harry Orth told his Intro to Literary Research class that Special Collections was seeking a grad student interested in transcribing Willa Cather’s handwritten letters to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Madigan quickly signed on. “I was eager to work with the letters of a famous author,” he says, “but had no idea of the profound impact Special Collections would have on my graduate studies and scholarly career.”
That initial work with the Cather letters would eventually drive Madigan’s master’s thesis, doctoral dissertation, and the publication of subsequent articles and books related to Dorothy Canfield Fisher; it’s also led him to his most recent work—a new edition of Will Thomas’s 1953 autobiography, The Seeking, to be published in the fall. In editing the edition and writing a new introduction, Madigan drew upon Thomas’s letters at UVM Special Collections after being alerted to them by librarian Prudence Doherty.
The autobiography and Madigan’s supporting text come together to tell the unusual story of Will Thomas (a pseudonym for William Smith) and his family’s experience as the only non-white family living in Westford, Vermont in the 1940s. Beyond their personal tale, the book more broadly offers insight into race relations in New England during that era.
It’s likely that current and future generations of UVM students will find inspiration similar to Madigan’s. Since becoming director in 2006 (following long-time director Connell Gallagher), Jeff Marshall has paid special attention to increasing the number of classes visiting Special Collections and integrating its holdings with coursework. Some seventy classes per year—everything from botany to printmaking—use the collection.
“Teaching is the most important thing we do,” Marshall says. “If we’re not teachers, then we’re just guardians, and that’s not what we want to be.”
As the university looks to the next era of Billings, it would seem that Marshall and his colleagues are well-positioned to be teachers and guardians both in this historic place that once again takes on the mantle of library.