One hundred years is a long time for any institution—but it’s the blink of an eye relative to the age of many of the books and manuscripts held by the Chapin Library. While the scale and scope of the collections have broadened to support Williams’ evolving curriculum, the library’s mission has been the same since its founding in 1923, with a gift from Alfred Clark Chapin, Class of 1869: to connect rare books and manuscripts with undergraduate teaching, research and creative expression. An exhibition in the Special Collections galleries and a forthcoming book celebrate the Chapin’s centennial by gathering the reflections of students, faculty, staff and friends of the college, past and present.
Martin Luther. Disputatio D. Martini Luther theologi: pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum
Basel: A. Petri, 1517; gift of Alfred Clark Chapin, Class of 1869, in 1923
This is a library to be used in undergraduate teaching. One of the teacher’s tasks is to make the events and issues of the past a vital reality to his students. The problem of sustaining this vitality, as the events and the issues pass from their sources through the great body of scholarly literature, is one of the never-ending challenges of education. It is here that the Chapin Library can offer assistance. Imagine a history class as it comes to the Reformation. There is a 1517 printing of Luther’s theses themselves. Here the students can see with their own eyes a contemporary copy of the document which set in motion one of the great upheavals of modern times. The books owned by the library can be used to bring to life the agitated world in which the Reformation took form.
—Thomas Adams, Chapin librarian from 1955–1957, writing in 1956
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
London: Bradbury and Evans, 1852-1853; gift of Alfred Clark Chapin, Class of 1869, in 1916
For over 30 years now, I have been bringing my 19th-century British Novel class to Chapin to give them a chance to see and handle the rare first editions of all these famous books and to provide a vivid immersion in the world of Victorian novel publication. Perhaps the most illuminating object we see is two versions of the first edition of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. One consists of 19 paper-covered booklets that were issued monthly, to be purchased for a shilling by his eager fans, the inside covers and back pages full of ads (which made more money than the sale of parts themselves). The other is the leather-bound volumes that those parts could be converted into: by having a bookbinder rip off the paper covers and the ads; shift to the front the title page, table of contents, list of illustrations and author’s preface that were always included in the last double part; and bind the whole thing according to the buyer’s taste. Students can hold parts in their hands, peruse the ads, with their glimpses into Victorian commercial culture, and check out the publisher’s teasers for upcoming works by various authors. To see the individual parts side by side with the bound volumes helps us appreciate how artfully Dickens balanced the demands of seriality with those of creating a finished work of art.
I was the only Korean speaker working at Chapin; this was one of the 12 unlabeled and yet-to-be identified Korean woodblocks. I deciphered fragments of the text, and, slowly, they revealed their true identity: classical poetry, essays and even a treatise on why a certain version of a certain anthology is worse than another! For an independent research project, I traveled to places in my own country I have never set my foot on. I visited museums and historical sites in small towns where I shared food with elders and curators and traveled with a stranger.
—Jiwoo Han ’25
I discovered [this book] while volunteering to help catalog the Chapin’s holdings. Of all the great illustrated works in natural history, Bowdich’s punches way above its weight. Each of its nearly 50 plates in the 50 published copies (nearly 3,000 plates in all!) was hand drawn and painted by Bowdich herself from freshly caught fishes, sometimes adding ground fish scales in the pigments for metallic effect. My discovery of Bowdich’s extraordinary work perhaps made a defining impression on me in other ways unknown then to even myself. From Williams, I went on to graduate school for a Ph.D. in zoology, studying freshwater fishes.
—Alan Bornbusch ’82
Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea
Italy, circa 1325-1375; gift of Alfred Clark
Chapin, Class of 1869, in 1925
This 14th-century Latin manuscript from Italy is a small but elegant example of a late medieval bestseller: the Legenda Aurea, or “Golden Legend,” a compilation of saints’ lives and miracles. With its composite structure and abundant evidence of careful reading and use—including the names of the readers—Codex Mss 019 is a precious object and a wonderful teaching tool to convey the vibrant intellectual traditions of late medieval European society. I have used this item to teach seminar students about the reading practices and book culture of the late medieval world; it really helps convey how these and similar objects formed part of a community of use over time and were not simply texts to be read and discarded. Every Williams student can relate to the need to take careful marginal notes in a textbook for future reference!
I wanted to try them on! I think everyone did: They were made of paper and painted to look so authentic, including rivets and a zipper! And in the back pocket is a book of poetry on Sir John Denham. The “blue jeans” was brought out for many classes, but I mostly remember it serving as the highlight of a Winter Study course, The Artist Book. The students were introduced to many of the Chapin’s artists’ books during the class, and by the end of the Winter Study they had created an artist’s book of their own. It was exhilarating to see the enthusiasm among the students. We proudly exhibited their books in a special case by the entrance area of the Stetson Library, and we kept and cataloged many of those student projects.
—Elaine Yanow, retired Chapin Library assistant
Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarum
Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, for Sebald Schreyer and Sebastian Kammermeister, 12 July 1493; gift of Donald Klopfer, Class of 1922, in 1981
In an Art History 101 lecture in 1995, E.J. Johnson ’59 put up a slide showing the Nuremberg Chronicle (Liber chronicarum). This book is justly famous as the most lavishly illustrated printed book of the 15th century, with over 1,800 woodcuts in its 326 printed leaves. He told us it lived in Chapin Library, just a few hundred yards away. I was just as surprised as if he had said that there was a complete Renaissance tempietto in the basement of Hopkins Hall, open by appointment. I had always liked the physicality of books and also the intellectual pleasures of art. This moment of the lecture united them for me. Five years later I was fortunate to land a job in the rare books department of Christie’s auction house, and rare books are still my career.
—Christina Geiger ’96
I first came across this letter while cataloging collections of Civil War soldiers’ letters as a student employee. Of the hundreds of letters that I read for my thesis research—and the thousands of letters I have read since then in the course of research for my dissertation and present book manuscript—this one still stands out to me. I was struck by how Plimpton reflected openly on the significance of letters to Civil War soldiers for grounding them in the world of home and family, even as they faced battle, bloodshed and the daily drudgery of camp life. Plimpton’s words crystallized the impression I had formed of soldiers’ letters as more than a means of practical communication or even
emotional support, but a testing ground for forging new identities and viewpoints from their experiences in wartime.
—Mary Freeman ’11, assistant professor of New England history, The University of Maine
Gregory Mason Papers
Acquired prior to 1978
Collections research is not often entirely what Indiana Jones promised. Sometimes, though, you watch a page of a 1932 newspaper fall in scattered fragments out of an unlabeled envelope at the bottom of a folder and spend half an hour puzzling the pieces back together to find out it was exactly what you were looking for. Gregory Mason (1889-1968), who graduated from Williams in 1911, was an archaeologist, journalist and adventurer who worked in the Yucatán Peninsula in the 1920s and ’30s and who played a pivotal role in the formation of the U.S. public’s understanding of the ancient Maya. He, and by extension his vast collection of papers in the Chapin Library, were also my research subject for the better part of a semester. This newspaper article features Mason posing with a collection of Maya figurines he uncovered in Honduras. It offered the first evidence of Mason removing artifacts for the purpose of filling the exhibits of American museums, providing a material connection to these institutions. More than a key piece of information that contained a plethora of leads, the happenstance discovery and reconstruction of the source itself reaffirmed my appreciation for the power of collections.
—Peyton Beeli ’23
Chicago, Ill: HMH Pub. Co., 1953-; from the collection of H. Richard Archer
The very first items I ever touched in the Chapin were the Playboy magazines brought up for my 100-level English course in the fall of my first year at Williams. Though excited, I couldn’t understand why such a magazine could be considered rare or historically significant. It ended up being a magazine I returned to for internships, classes and professional projects. Playboy is a reminder that the everyday things we use and consume and love speak to who we are and what we care about; it informs my view of public and community histories.
—Ruth Kramer ’22, John A. Lowe III ’73 Special Collections Fellow