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Syracuse University Library History by David H. Stam. An excerpt from International Dictionary of Library Histories




(June 1998). volumes: 2,800,000; manuscripts: 53,000 linear feet; microforms: 3,800,000; maps: 190,000; audio recordings: 360,000; film and video: 10,000 reels

Archival and Manuscript Collections

Areas of Concentration: Adult education, Art, Architectural, Business, Literary, Political, Publishing, Regional, and Religious history, Mass Communications, Photography, Recorded Sound, and Cartoon Art. Individual Collections: Leopold von Ranke, Oneida Community, Pennsylvania Railroad, Grove Press, Street and Smith, Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling, Albert Schweitzer, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothy Thompson, Arna Bontemps, Benjamin Spock, Gerrit Smith, Averell Harriman, Marcel Breuer, Rudolf Bultmann, Norman Vincent Peale, Joyce Carol Oates.

Methodist in origin and mission, Syracuse University was founded in 1870 by Methodist conferences in New York State and by assimilation of Genesee College, another Methodist-sponsored institution in Lima, New York. No books came to the new university from that association, and few books were on hand when the university began offering classes in September 1871, those few purchased with a small appropriation for textbooks. Temporary housing in downtown Syracuse sufficed for the initial years of a meager library. Two years after its move in 1873 to two small rooms in the university's first major building, the Hall of Languages, the library still held only 2,300 volumes. For the next 15 years average annual expenditures on materials was about $26.00, and the library relied mainly on gifts for the modest growth that occurred.

The Ranke Library

Thus it was an impoverished library that in 1888 realized the remarkable acquisition of the personal working library of the renowned German historian Leopold von Ranke. The combined efforts of Professor Charles Wesley Bennett (a former student of Ranke), and Dr. John M. Reid (former president of Genesee College, university trustee, and the library's most significant early benefactor) achieved the unthinkable. In outbidding the Prussian government and withstanding local indifference to obtain a scholarly collection of about 20,000 volumes, including many significant manuscript and archival holdings (Venetian in particular), the university appeared on the bibliothecal map and soon claimed to be the third largest collection in New York State. An anonymous benefactor (Dr. Reid) and an undisclosed amount (about $20,000) sealed the purchase from Ranke's son Otto. The collection arrived in Syracuse from Berlin in March 1888, comprising 83 boxes weighing 19 tons. Included were Ranke's desk and chair, his portrait, and other memorabilia of his life, now well preserved and on display, though loaned to Berlin in 1988 for the celebration of that city's 750th year.

A fortunate condition of Dr. Reid's gift was that the university provide a fireproof building for the collection. Raising funds for that purpose proved more difficult, but the building, known as the Ranke Library, was completed and formally dedicated by June 1889. Although a delightfully quixotic building designed by Archimedes Russell, it soon showed signs of spatial and functional inadequacy. Despite an additional wing added in 1903 (a gift of Mrs. Reid), the library's recurrent and continuing space crisis forced a move to larger quarters by 1907. The structure now serves as the university's administration building, and virtually all interior architectural vestiges of its original purpose have vanished.


In the early years of the library, books were classed in a fixed location system, leading users to specific locations on marked shelves. In 1895 Librarian Henry O. Sibley canvassed the librarians of Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and Pennsylvania to ascertain their classification practices, especially their possible use of the Dewey decimal classification. Most replied that they had systems of their own devising to meet local needs, and only Chicago, the youngest of these universities, claimed the use of Dewey from the beginning of its library. Syracuse chose to adopt the Dewey classification scheme shortly after and used it consistently until 1962 when it switched to the Library of Congress classification for all new acquisitions, leaving a collection of 600,000 volumes requiring reclassification. Although intended to be completed by 1967, that process of reclassification continued into the year 2000 with approximately 100,000 volumes needing relocation (and often preservation treatment).

The Carnegie Building

Even after its additional wing was completed, the inadequacies of the Ranke Library reflected some increased growth in collections (mostly by donation), the creation of the School of Library Science using space in the building, expanded student enrollment, and greater student demand. Even before the completion of the new wing, Chancellor James R. Day and colleagues began their campaign to persuade philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to provide a major gift for a new library at Syracuse. After considerable resistance, Carnegie yielded in March 1905 with agreement to pay $150,000 for a new building on condition that the university raise a like amount in endowment for the "upkeep and carrying on of the Library." The requisite funds when raised were not invested as endowment but used for the building of a student residence hall, the rental income intended for library maintenance. There is no record that such funds were ever allocated in that manner.

Nonetheless, construction began almost immediately using plans prepared two years earlier by two professors of the university, plans satisfactory to Carnegie and the university's trustees. The building opened in September 1907 after all materials had been transferred from the Ranke Library, a collection of over 71,000 volumes. Carnegie was invited to the opening but was unable to attend; in fact the building has never had a formal dedication. Despite initial praise (the librarian of the University of Pennsylvania called it the "best designed academic library building in the country"), it was not long before dissatisfaction returned. Space was gradually allocated to nonlibrary functions, including the student radio station and a community YMCA; growth of the School of Library Science within the building created its own demands; library hours were considered inadequate; and students complained of restrictions in stack access and in borrowing privileges. Branch libraries within the various colleges of the university began to proliferate, including those of the colleges of forestry and of medicine (now part of the State University of New York system and no longer part of Syracuse University Library). Most of the other branch libraries were merged in 1972 with the opening of Bird Library as the university's principal library. After that date the Carnegie continued to house the Science and Technology Library and a Mathematics Library; while two separate branch libraries for physics and earth sciences continue in nearby buildings. Plans for Carnegie's renovation and modernization were continual but unsuccessful during the last quarter of the 20th century.

The Tolley Years

The prospects for library development at Syracuse took their most promising turn with the appointment in 1942 of Chancellor William Pearson Tolley (1942-69). A Methodist minister with degrees from Syracuse (B.A.), Drew University (B.D.), and Columbia University (Ph.D.), Tolley was a knowledgeable bookman and collector who saw library development as an essential element in his goal of creating a major research university. The highest library priorities during his chancellorship were development of significant research collections and a new building to replace the aging and increasingly unsatisfactory Carnegie Building.

With little money but much persistence, Tolley and his librarians cast an exceedingly wide net during the 1950s and 1960s in seeking gifts of personal papers and corporate archives with any potential research value. Collecting on such a massive scale resulted in significant additions as well as considerable criticism of indiscriminate accumulation. The archivist of the United States once dismissed the Syracuse approach as the "vacuum cleaner" school of archival development. Storage and cataloging were also problematic until the completion of a new library building in 1972, three years after Tolley relinquished his chancellorship. Subsequent administrations allowed the pruning of less relevant acquisitions (e.g., the archives of the Studebaker Corporation, prayer letters addressed to Norman Vincent Peale, fragmentary archives of the American Institute of Architects) and their transfer to more appropriate institutions. There seems very little doubt that Tolley's vision brought very significant scholarly resources to an emerging research university, including one of the nation's largest academic collections of recorded sound, the Belfer Audio Archive and Laboratory. As such, Syracuse gained entrance to the Association of Research Libraries in 1962 and election to the Association of American Universities in 1967.

One enigmatic element in this constant growth was Tolley's appointment of John Mayfield as curator of the Mayfield Library 1961. Mayfield was an eccentric Texas collector, son of a United States senator, who had amassed a large collection of manuscripts (most notably letters of poet Algernon Charles Swinburne), first editions, and other rare materials. In 1964 he presented this collection as the Mayfield Library to Syracuse University with considerable fanfare, and for most of the decade he served as a scout for archival and book gifts to the university. Only after his death in 1983 did the university discover that following his retirement in 1971 Mayfield had systematically removed large portions of the collection, first to his Washington, D.C., home and subsequently by gift to Georgetown University Library. Included in the transfers were important university holdings that he, as curator of rare books and manuscripts, had moved into the Mayfield Library. A later claim that the Mayfield Library had been placed at Syracuse only on deposit was never proved. A combination of extensive detective work and delicate diplomacy finally brought the most valuable of these missing materials back to Syracuse in 1989, including the Swinburne manuscripts, portions of the Dorothy Thompson collection (which Mayfield had helped bring to the university), several Byron letters, and many modern first editions. The third volume of the history of the university, published in 1984, was dedicated to the Mayfields, but there is no longer a separate Mayfield Library at the university.

Bird Library

The decade of the 1960s was a period of immense growth in North American higher education generally and in the establishment and expansion of research libraries in particular. Syracuse was no exception, recording one of the highest growth rates in the country during the Tolley period. Already inadequate by the early 1950s, the Carnegie Building by the late 1960s held twice the collections and six times the staffing as originally intended. Remote storage provided some relief, but the need for a new library, discussed since the mid-1930s, became by 1961 a clear university priority. Building finally began in the summer of 1969, after Tolley's retirement as chancellor; with inevitable delays in both fund-raising and construction, the E.S. Bird Library did not open until 1972. The merging of several of the branch libraries was compromised by a design that decentralized staffing for both public and technical services while housing broad subject research collections on each of four upper floors of the seven-story building (fine arts, humanities, social sciences, and area studies). The top floor was designated for the university's rapidly growing special collections. Space in the Carnegie Building, liberated by the move of most of the collections, accommodated not only the general science and technology holdings but also some science branch libraries (eventually including chemistry), a contiguous Mathematics Library, and the offices and classrooms of the Mathematics Department.

Although a great improvement on all previous library facilities, the labor-intensive organization of Bird Library, perhaps appropriate for a more prosperous period, was never fully satisfactory. A thorough-going reconfiguration in 1991 dismantled the subject organization, placed the collections in one classmark sequence, added a variety of new study areas throughout the building, and reunited the distributed reference services in one prime location.


Ironically, the opening of Bird Library in 1972 was accompanied by one of the worst financial crises in the university's history, and the toll was particularly hard on a library designed as a quasi-branch system requiring extensive staffing. Under incoming Chancellor Melvin Eggers, major staff reductions were implemented, and cuts in acquisition funding undermined many of the collection strengths developed over the previous two decades. Staffing in the Department of Special Collections was especially hard hit (reduced from over 35 positions to 12), the archival acquisitions program essentially closed, and processing of the huge accumulations of the past two decades virtually halted. Shortly after the opening, the library faced its first collective-bargaining confrontation, leading to a unionized support staff and a lengthy strike in 1973.


Amid all these difficulties, Syracuse was fortunate to have been among the earliest pioneers of academic library automation, to some extent easing the burdens of reduced staffing. Collaborative work of the library and the variously named offices of the university's Computing and Media Services began in the mid-1960s and expanded with membership in the regional consortium Five Associated University Libraries (FAUL) with its access to OCLC cataloging services and with the unveiling of one of the country's first publicly accessible online catalogs (1979). The subsequent development of commercial integrated library systems led to further changes in the 1990s. Other automation work, exploiting the emerging Internet and World Wide Web, and reliance on the Research Libraries Information Network for access to manuscript and archival collections, parallels similar developments throughout research libraries internationally.

Recent Trends

With the appointment of Chancellor Kenneth A Shaw in 1991, a new round of retrenchment planning began, spurred by declining enrollments and increased costs. During the 1990s, budget reductions in the library led to the loss of 30 positions and reduced acquisitions funds, a decrease in its base budget of nearly 20 percent. Some losses were offset by funds for negotiated salary increases and by fund-raising efforts, but little could be done to combat the effects of very high inflation in periodical and journal costs and the consequently large numbers of serial cancellations, which adversely affected library research support, especially in the sciences.

Two significant interrelated national trends, however, helped shape library development during the final decade of the 20th century. First was the adoption by the university of a local version of a popular management tool known as Total Quality Management (TQM), a system of "quality improvement" widely used in higher education during the 1990s. Related to and to some extent arising from that effort was an emphasis on the undergraduate as the primary consumer for whom the quality improvement was intended. Emphasis on undergraduate education has had some obvious effects on the division of resources between instructional and research activities throughout the university. In the library all staff received training in the methodology of TQM, leading to some modest improvements in services to students. Simultaneously, the library's Department of Special Collections focussed its service programs on introducing undergraduate students to the research potential of its extensive collections of rare books, archives, and manuscripts. Gifts and grants from William Safire and the Dana Foundation funded the creation of the William Safire Seminar Room (including much of Safire's personal library) and the establishment of a teaching assistantship, graduate students who work with faculty to bring undergraduate classes to use and exploit special collections. Expansion of Web-based access to electronic resources was also a stimulus to undergraduate work as well as scholarly research.

David H. Stam

Further Reading

  • Doherty, Amy S., "Syracuse University Libraries," in Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, edited by Allen Kent and Harold Lancour, vol. 29, New York: Marcel Dekker, 1980
  • Galpin, William Freeman, Syracuse University, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1952-98. See esp. vol. 1, The Pioneer Days (1952), p. 88-101; vol. 2, The Growing YearsThe Critical Years, edited by Richard Wilson (1984), p. 35-47; vol. 4, The Tolley Years, by John Robert Green (1996), p. 174-181; vol. 5, The Eggers Years,
  • (1960), p. 126-150; vol. 3, by John Robert Green (1998), p. 87-91, 209-210
  • Muir, Edward, comp., The Leopold von Ranke Manuscript Collection of the Syracuse University Library, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1983
  • Stam, David H., "Peaks of Joy, Valleys of Despair: The History of the Syracuse University Library from 1871 to 1907," Syracuse University Library Associates Courier 30 (1995), p. 117-133 Syracuse University Library Associates Courier, April 1958-