Miller Library: the history of the heart of the campus
This photo, taken in 1938, shows the beginning stages of the construction on Miller Library. The construction was completed in 1947, when the library officially opened to the College student body.
For many students, Miller Library serves as the central hot spot for school activity. Not only is it the heart of our campus, but it offers students a place to escape the confines of the dorms, to enrich their understanding of the world and to reconnect with friends after a long day of classes. But what do students know about the library beyond this?
The history of Miller Library begins with the decision to relocate campus from downtown Waterville to Mayflower Hill. “After a century and a quarter ‘on the wrong side of the tracks,’” a June 9, 1946 edition of The Boston Sunday Globe reported, “Colby College is moving to a functionally designed ‘ideal’ campus….Sixteen years ago a state survey of higher education in Maine condemned Colby, in effect, to ‘move or die.’”
Move is exactly what the College did. The first building erected on the new grounds, Lorimer Chapel, was quickly followed by the construction of Miller Library. The library was erected mainly with funds donated by Dr. Merton Leland Miller, Class of 1890. Miller, a Maine native, graduated from the College with a degree in anthropology before going on to receive his Ph.D in anthropology at the University of Chicago. The College later awarded him an honorary Doctor of Law degree in 1949. Miller Library was not named for Dr. Miller, but rather in memory of his mother and father.
Construction began in 1939. That same year Miller returned to Waterville with his wife to lay the cornerstone of the new library. In a speech given at the cornerstone ceremony of Miller Library on Sept. 29, 1939, College President Franklin W. Johnson said, “The laying of cornerstones has become a frequent occurrence at Colby College….This noble building, with its tower rising higher than that of the Chapel on yonder hillside, in its proportions and the position which it occupies, will be the dominating feature of the entire campus. We conceive the library as the center of the intellectual life of the liberal arts college.”
However, construction of the new campus came at a difficult time. In his speech, Johnson also addressed the economic and political difficulties that the College and the entire world were facing at the time. “We are living today in a world torn asunder and seemingly bent on its own destruction....And yet, may we not take hope today, when the engines of war are dealing out destruction on land and sea and in the air, that on this quiet hillside we are laying the cornerstone of a building devoted to the arts of peace and to the building of the ideals of truth and human brotherhood.”
After several difficult years the library construction was complete and it opened its doors in 1947. A front-page article from The Waterville Morning Sentinel dated Tuesday, April 29, 1947, said, “The office equipment and reading tables were moved last Wednesday and the cataloging room is ready for use. The reserved book room in the ground floor, central section, of the Miller Library will provide study facilities for the students until the large reference and periodical room is ready.”
The library was an instant success. The larger space made it possible for the school to expand the size of its collection, with the number of volumes in the library growing from 70,000 in the old library in 1930 to 185,000 volumes in the new one. Students flocked to the central building on campus, which at the time housed the Spa in what is now the Street, as well as the President’s office in what is currently special collections.
But the growth of the library was not yet complete. “The addition in 1983 occurred mainly because the library ran out of space, both in terms of study space and collections,” Director of Colby College Libraries Clem Guthro said.
Once inside the first floor of Miller, it is clear where the new and old buildings differ. The exterior brickwork can still be seen when sitting at the computer cluster and first floor study tables. The addition contains all of that space for every floor, adding much space for student study, collections and faculty offices.
Today, the library continues to flourish and meet students’ academic and social needs. “The number of physical volumes in the library today is around 485,000,” Guthro said. The library accumulates new volumes every year from librarian and faculty approval plans, as well as major book vendors that provide popular titles and authors automatically. “We spend more money on electronic collections than on books today,” Guthro said. “Journals are largely digitalized. Books can be both.”
Miller is doing more than just looking to the future. The library also dedicates resources to the preservation of the past through special collections, which is housed in the Robinson room. “Special collections holds all of the College’s rare books, literary manuscripts and archives,” Patricia Burdick, special collections librarian, said.
The College is in possession of rare books such as the first edition of James Joyces’ Ulysses as well as a book dated from 1476. “The oldest book we have is the Nuremberg Chronicle, which offers a history of the world in seven chapters,” Burdick said. Literary manuscripts available in special collections include letters from poets Thomas Hardy and Edwin Arlington Robinson, as well as Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett.
The College archives are perhaps the most popular aspect of special collections, with all official documents related to the College from to 1813 being held there. “They are being heavily used now as we reach the bicentennial,” Burdick said.
Special collections offers more than just publications. The Robinson room is often home to poetry readings and lectures. The room is also open throughout the school year as student study space, with extended hours during the exam periods.
As the College continues to grow, Guthro sees no major changes to Miller. “What I see is a storage building for volumes in order to transform Miller into more student and technology space and to bring the Writer’s Center upstairs.” He even suggests a return to Miller’s roots with the reinstatement of a library café. But for now students can only dream of the day where coffee is available at all hours.