Inaugural Couper Phi Beta Kappa Lecture Features SU Librarian Emeritus David Stam

He Discussed Trials and Tribulations of Hamilton Library in 19th Century

Contact: Margaret Thickstun
September 12, 2005

The Inaugural Couper Phi Beta Kappa Library Lecture was held on Friday, September 9. This annual lecture will honor Hamilton alumnus and trustee Richard "Dick" Couper '44 for his commitment and contributions to Hamilton College and the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the oldest academic honorary society in America. David Stam, the former Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Research Libraries at the New York Public Library and Syracuse University librarian emeritus, was the speaker for this event. His topic was "An Army without Ammunition: Books and the College Library," about the trials and tribulations of Hamilton and its library in the 19th century.

Stam began his lecture by honoring Couper, whom he worked with at the New York Public Library, of which Couper was the first full-time CEO. "Richard Couper presided over the New York Public Library in one of the most difficult decades in New York's history. I have no doubt Dick's steadfast leadership kept the library alive," he said.

Stam gave a brief history of Hamilton's library and how it came to be the important campus resource it is today. He said in his research he was "seeking evidence of the values that made the library what it is." In the 19th century, explained Stam, all of Hamilton College's presidents were reverends and generally believed the Bible should be the basis of studies and a small, carefully selected library was all that was needed to supplement students' studies. When Hamilton College was chartered in 1812, the campus was in possession of 223 volumes. Soon, though, college presidents found it necessary to "purge" those books they considered "unpure."

The board of trustees decided a small addition must be made to the library in November 1812, and allotted $100 to library improvement; this was to come last after other needs were taken care of, however. "Hamilton was never rich in this time," said Stam. The library, which was originally in the Academy building and then moved to the third floor of the Chapel, changed relatively little for several years. In 1826 the library got its first printed catalogue, which recorded 1600 titles. At this time, the library was open for student use for only a few hours a week and the position of librarian was usually held by a professor, as a second, part-time job.

The library "muddled along through the 1850's," Stam noted, as the College faced other more pressing problems, until the 1860's saw a campaign for a new library. The seventh president of Hamilton, Samuel Brown, was the first to speak candidly of the need for a new library. This is the same period Phi Beta Kappa was founded. Begun in 1866, the new library was finally completed in 1872, and "Hamilton began to move toward the technologically-equipped library it has now," said Stam. He closed his speech with a piece of advice. Like most libraries, the Hamilton library has been devoting more and more resources to electronic and technological advancement; "Rare books and special collections have equal power to turn students on to learning," Stam reminded the audience.

Richard Couper has been a staunch advocate for and supporter of Phi Beta Kappa on campus and nationally. Seven years ago he and his wife Patsy established the Couper Phi Beta Kappa book prize, which is awarded annually to the top 10 rising sophomores. He has served as president of The Fellows of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, a group of supporters who have made possible much of the success of the organization.

Having served 46 years as a trustee of Hamilton, Dick Couper is second only to Elihu Root in length of tenure in that role. He has shown his support in many ways, including his contributions to Burke Library for special purchases and his establishment of an endowment for the Couper Librarian. Couper, his wife and his parents also established the Williams-Watrous-Couper Fund, an endowment that supports faculty research and teaching improvement. He has contributed his time as well as his financial support to the College and has been recognized for his efforts with the 2004 Volunteer of the Year Award.

-- by Laura Trubiano '07