There was one image Zoe Keller, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s public relations manager, kept coming across when researching stories about the opening of the building 50 years ago.
“My favorite compares Beinecke to an iceberg – what’s visible is minuscule to what is really here,” she said.
It’s an apt description, both for the architecturally stunning structure on High Street and for the rare literary riches collected therein.
For five decades academics have used the library for everything from undergraduate papers to works of very serious scholarship. The institution will celebrate that milestone throughout 2013 with yearlong exhibitions and a series of monthly events.
Like most things, money started the whole thing off. The library was born when three Yale University alumni, the Beinecke brothers, charming old book collectors who made their money in the grocery business, donated the resources for a new building to house the university’s rare book collection. Yale’s rare book archives had been previously stored at the august Sterling Memorial Library. Those volumes, some which dated from the founding of Yale University in the 18th century, was the seed of the Beinecke’s collection, and is now housed in a fireproof six-story glass-enclosed tower in the center of the building.
“It is a time capsule of what was the special collection in 1963,” Keller said. “It’s a tiny fraction of what’s housed here.”
Over time, curators charged with overseeing a particular subject area or time period augmented the collection.
“Curators are given a lot of freedoms to follow their passions,” Keller said.
Over a million volumes are stored within the 125,000-square-foot library, so many that space is actually an issue, and there is a backlog in the meticulous task of cataloging materials, a job done in offices and warrens throughout unseen areas of the building. There are five major collections currently stored in the library: a general collection of rare books and manuscripts, collections geared toward Western Americana, American literature, German literature, and the Osborn Collection of English Literary and Historical Manuscripts.
“It is a broad and deep collection,” said head of access services Stephen Jones. “The amount of books that have resulted from research done here is substantial.”
The collections contains some truly magisterial works, like one of the few remaining copies of the Gutenberg Bible, printed in 1454, on permanent display in the mezzanine of the library. The papers of authors such as Eugene O’Neill, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Gertrude Stein are held at the Beinecke.
There are also oddities in the collection, like the Voynich Manuscript, a 15th century text written entirely in an indecipherable language. The lone copy of Boy Castaways, an adventure story written by the creator of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie, can be found at the library. There are 14th century Arthurian romances, books on alchemy, collections of playing cards. The library’s staff collects photos of writers and pieces of ancient papyrus. Despite the modern look of the building, the overwhelming impression one gets is of age, time, and collective wisdom.
The distinctive look of the library is a product of its time, architecturally. The Brutalist movement, known for its blocky and linear construction – often made from poured concrete – had, in 1963, not yet taken hold on college campuses, so the design of the Beinecke, channeling that movement, was a bold statement. Indeed, the Yale University buildings surrounding the Beinecke on Wall Street are classical in tone.
The building was designed by Gordon Bunshaft of the firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill.
“This was a huge departure from classic university architecture,” Keller said. “For some people this was a real affront.”
Bunshaft, speaking to the SOM Journal, said that initially the Beinecke brothers wanted something akin to the Houghton Library at Harvard – a series of small period rooms. Bunshaft had different ideas. With the guiding principle of books as treasures, Bunshaft came up with the idea of housing books under glass – not simply as small exhibitions, but in larger rooms where humidity and temperature could be controlled. The Beineckes agreed.
Seeking inspiration, Bunshaft came across a Renaissance-style palace in Istanbul covered in what he believed to be translucent onyx, a rare material. It took Bunshaft two years to find suitable onyx, and it was located in a war zone in Algeria. A few initial forays, including one in which French troops were dispatched to secure of a field of the material, proved unsuccessful. So, Bunshaft turned his thoughts northward, buying Vermont marble to make the one-and-one-quarter-inch-thick exterior, a surface that allows a warm light to flood into the enclosed building while protecting the books from the harsh, direct glare of the sun. Naturally occurring elements like bronze and teak are features of the building’s design.
“The thing about the Beinecke that’s interesting is the outside is cold and severe, and you walk inside and it’s very warm and rich,” Bunshaft told the journal. “When the sun pours in, it’s quite nice with the rich books. Everybody loves to go into a great space. That’s what makes people love to see cathedrals. That’s what makes the National Gallery that (I.M.) Pei did – the great room inside doesn’t do a thing, but it’s very dramatic and a great open space. That’s what the public likes. However, I didn’t think of the public. Our space isn’t that size and it’s got a big bulk in the middle. But if they’re handsomely done, great spaces give an emotional experience to people.”
Bunshaft, by his own admission, said the building was never intended to be used by a great many people. However, over the years, the library has endeavored to become more open and inviting, Keller said. Concerts and lectures are routinely held in the mezzanine area of the library and the public is invited to tour the exhibits there.
“The building was initially intended to be used by a small, elite group of people,” Keller said. “As time has gone on, the library has moved towards democratizing it, and making it more open to the public. They take the mission of access very seriously.”
I’ve only had a reason to walk into the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library three times, and they’ve all been in the past three months: once in the summer, when a librarian friend of mine took me to see a William Shakespeare exhibit, and twice in November as I worked on this story.
I felt that to understand the Beinecke’s mission, I had to do a bit of research myself. So, on my third visit, I signed up on a computer, and went to the circulation desk to pick up what I was looking for. One can’t browse stacks the way you would in an ordinary library – you have to know what you want and request it.
I took a plain gray, heavy cardboard box into the reading room and sat at a table. I was a touch on the nervous side handling my request, although there was no reason to be. The room was below ground, brightly lit and silent, a pair of bespectacled graduate students poring over materials nearby. I opened the box, took out a folder and opened it. On a perfectly kept piece of more-than six-decades-old green notebook paper were written – with a fountain pen and in a spidery hand – two simple phrases: “No curtain. No scenery.”
It was the original, handwritten script for the classic American play Our Town, found amid Thornton Wilder’s papers.
It is a play I love for myriad reasons, not the least of which is because in many ways the work is fundamentally about time and memory. I turned the pages carefully. Wilder was a clean writer – there are edits to the text, but they are not sloppy. Many pages of this first draft would remain in the finished script verbatim. But there are fascinating byways that Wilder explored – character names changed, the biggest example being the name of the play’s heroine. For a few lines, she was christened Amy, before she quickly became Emily. The ubiquitous Stage Manager played all of the smaller roles, including George Gibbs’ sister (who was a boy in the draft) and Simon Stimson, the alcoholic choirmaster.
I had about 20 minutes with the script, not enough time to go through it all. For a moment, being a theater person, Wilder’s pages took my breath away. It made me want to go further, to pore over every word looking for clues and new insights.
I’d like to think discoveries begin this way – that a scholar or a graduate student opens a box or a book, a rarity, something precious and old, and the process of creation begins anew. They repurpose their initial ideas into new thoughts, new ideas, and thus our collective body of knowledge gets added to, in however small a way. It’s a romantic notion, yes, and the reality is much more prosaic, but I hope that’s the way it goes – that what the Beinecke has really held for the past five decades is the wonder of what has come before, and the possibility of what could be.
For more information about the library and to explore a stunning visual archive of its holdings, visit library.yale.edu/beinecke.