Uris Historical Tour: Andrew Dickson White Library

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Andrew Dickson White, Cornell University’s co-founder and first president, built a great library. Although seldom identified today as one of the foremost collectors of the 19th century, his achievements have left a remarkable legacy. Unlike other famous book collectors of his time—J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry Edwards Huntington, John Jacob Astor, and James Lenox—he did not establish a separate institution to house his personal collections of books and manuscripts. Instead, White donated his entire collection of 30,000 books to the Cornell University Library—at a time when the Library possessed a collection of just 90,000 volumes.

White’s great generosity reveals his utilitarian approach to collecting and, in his words, a “strong belief in the didactic value of books.”  As an educator and historian he believed that one could not have a great university without a great library, and he wanted his books to be read and used by Cornell’s faculty and students.

His collections of materials on architecture, witchcraft, the Reformation, the French Revolution, Abolitionism and the Civil War were among the finest in the world during his lifetime. Originally shelved in the large, three-story room within Uris Library that bears his name, White’s collections are no longer kept together in one place. Many of his books were moved to the stacks in Olin Library when it opened in 1961. In recent years, most of White’s books have been transferred to the Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections for their continued protection and preservation. Today, the Andrew Dickson White Library holds a portion of the humanities and social science collections found in the combined Olin and Uris Libraries.

It is perhaps more fitting and accurate to say that Andrew Dickson White built two great libraries. The first was his large and significant personal book collection. The second was the Cornell University Library. 

White hired Willard Fiske to be Cornell’s first University Librarian, and he worked closely with him to develop innovative and progressive policies for their library. White purchased its first books, and played an active role throughout his life in developing the library’s collections. Even in his student days, White had considered the merits of the most prestigious European libraries, imagining what it would be like to build an important new research library.

A trace of this inspiration can be found in the stained-glass windows that line the room. They portray the crests of several Oxford and Cambridge colleges. In the north windows, for instance, the blue escutcheon contains the motto for Oxford University, “Dominus Illuminatio Mea.” Translated from Psalm 27, it means, “The Lord is my Light.” Visitors from a new generation find the room’s ambiance comes from another source, calling it the “Harry Potter” library.

When White offered his personal library to the university, he set two conditions.  He asked that the university provide a suitable space to house his collection—he stipulated a fire-proof room—and he requested that proper provision be made for the ongoing maintenance of his collections.  That “suitable space” is the Andrew Dickson White Library. White played an active role in helping the building’s architect, William Henry Miller, design and ornament this space.

The maintenance and cataloging of the collection became the responsibility of George Lincoln Burr, a member of the Cornell class of 1871. Burr was White’s secretary and personal librarian as well as the first curator of the White Historical Library. Originally hired by White when he was a Cornell sophomore, Burr worked closely with White to develop and care for his library. We can safely posit that after 1879, the White collection must be seen as a collaborative effort between the two scholars. Each traveled to Europe on extended book-buying tours. Burr, also a renowned professor in the Cornell History department, is given special credit for building and enriching the Library’s collections on the Reformation and witchcraft.

Burr’s portrait by Cornell art professor Christian Midjo is prominently displayed on the north wall of the room, and a small drawing by R. H. Bainton on the first tier shows Burr as Cornell historian Carl Becker once described him: an “indefatigable scholar and bibliophile . . . browsing and brooding in the stacks.”

The Andrew Dickson White Library is filled with art work, furniture, and artifacts from White’s academic and diplomatic careers. He served as U.S. minister to Germany while still president of Cornell, and later also served as minister to Russia. Several pictures and photographs in the room depict Russian scenes. The artworks were collected by Mr. White.

Originally, this space had skylights and an open archway into the adjacent Dean Room (where the Burr portrait now hangs).  Those features were lost to renovations, but the original three tiers of wrought- iron stacks still offer an open and dramatic display of their books.  Upon first seeing these shelves filled with White’s books in September of 1891, George Lincoln Burr wrote that it “gave one such an idea of a multitude of books. You see and feel them all. They quite overawe one.”  Setting the objective for the collection, he promised to make the White Library, in his words, “the great living, growing historical workshop of the University.”