The John Carter Brown Library houses a collection of Americana which John Carter Brown 1816 began to collect in 1846 when he purchased a small collection of American books from his brother, Nicholas Brown 1811, who was leaving for Rome where he was to be United States Consul General. John Carter Brown had already begun to buy books on travel and history in his student days, and in 1841 had inherited the family library from his father. He decided to collect books printed before 1801, which, at the time, was a relatively recent date. He enlisted the aid of Henry Stevens “of Vermont,” a recent Yale graduate and law student, who was willing to travel to Europe in 1845 to buy rare books for Brown and other clients. In the next two years his purchases had enlarged Brown’s collection by 1500 titles, many of them from the library of Henri Ternaux-Compans. There were a number of other collectors of similar material, notably James Lenox of New York, Brown’s summer neighbor in Newport, who also made use of Stevens’ services and whose collection, (which became the “Lenox Library”) overtook Brown’s. The importance of Mr. Brown’s private collection is attested by this entry in The Librarian’s Manual in 1858: “These two Catalogues, (Rich’s Bibliotheca and Supplement), although they contain two thousand five hundred and twenty-three articles, are far from being complete. A merchant in Providence, well known to the amateurs of this class of books, has in his own private collection three thousand two hundred and thirty-one early works upon America, published between the years 1700 and 1800, of which one thousand five hundred and twelve are not mentioned by Rich. He has also one thousand one hundred and seventy-four works published previous to the year 1700, of which five hundred and nine are not mentioned by Ternaux; thus making four thousand four hundred and five separate works relating to America and published previous to the year 1800, of which two thousand and twenty-one were unknown to the eminent American bibliographers, whose catalogues are described in this list.”
John Carter Brown set the geographical boundary of his collection as the entire western hemisphere. His friend and librarian, John Russell Bartlett, encouraged him in collecting works from the presses of Mexico and Peru and works on the Spanish Southwest. In 1865 Bartlett prepared an edition of fifty copies of the first part of A Catalogue of Books relating to North and South America in the Library of John Carter Brown, of Providence, R.I., which included selected titles of works printed between 1493 and 1600. The second part, for the years 1601 to 1700, was published in 1866, and the third part, from 1701 to 1800, in 1870 and 1871. An updated new catalogue with the same subdivisions was issued by his widow between 1875 and 1882. After the death of John Carter Brown in 1874, the second printed catalogue of his books, which now numbered about 7,000, was printed in the years 1875 to 1882.
The library was inherited by Brown’s widow, Sophia Augusta Brown, who had her own interests in collecting. She preferred fine printing and manuscripts, and acquired illuminated church manuscripts and Shakespeare folios. One of her two sons, Harold Brown 1886, was more interested in his collection of books on the liturgy of the Church of England and the history of that church in America. The older son, John Nicholas Brown 1885, inherited his father’s interest in Americana, and it was to him that his mother deeded the collection in 1898. John Nicholas had already hired George Parker Winship in 1895 to catalogue the library, and he was also planning to erect a building for the library, when he died on May 1, 1900. He left his books, an endowment of $500,000, and a building fund of $150,000 to be placed by his trustees wherever they thought best. The trustees chose Brown University, and the bequest was received in September 1901. Under an agreement between the trustees of the estate and the University in 1902, the library is owned by the Corporation, but has been operated as a semi-autonomous institution with its own administration and funding, under a committee of management. It receives an annual subsidy from the University, but is not part of the library system. The collections of Sophia Augusta Brown and Harold Brown were also given to Brown.
The library building was erected on the middle campus near George Street. Two dormitories, Messer House and Howell House, and the rectory of St. Stephen’s Church were razed from the site. The building, designed by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge and built by Norcross Brothers, is entirely of stone, limestone on the outside and sandstone on the inside. The red tile roof is edged by a cheveau of a shell design connected by scrolls carved by stonecutters John Evans and Company of Boston. Carved above the door are the arms of the Brown family and “AMERICANA.” The ceiling of the elegant 75-foot reading room is supported by four Ionic pillars. At the dedication on May 17, 1904, a procession marched through the John Nicholas Brown Gate, opened for the first time, and four-year-old John Nicholas Brown presented the keys to the library to President Faunce.
Winship came to the campus with the Library, and by the time of his retirement in 1915, the collection had grown to 30,000 volumes. Champlin Burrage, who had been librarian of Manchester College in Oxford was appointed to succeed Winship. Burrage remained only until 1917, and the library was under the care of Worthington C. Ford, until the appointment of Lawrence C. Wroth in 1923. Wroth was librarian until 1957 and was followed by Thomas R. Adams from 1957 to 1983 and Norman Fiering since 1983.
In the 1980s, the John Carter Brown Library became a center for advanced research in the humanities, and started a fellowship program with stipends for scholars from around the world, who come to do research for several months. In the summer of 1989 construction began on a four-level annex at the rear of the building, designed by the Washington firm of Hartman-Cox. The addition was named the Caspersen Building, in honor of the parents of benefactor Finn Casperson ’63, and the reading room of the library was named in honor of the family of W. Duncan MacMillan ’53.