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The “Heart of the University” Turns 75

The Sterling Memorial Library is a magnificent building—so magnificent that University Librarian Andrew Keogh feared the building would overshadow the books. Once, when the library was still in the planning phase, he wryly proposed that the following motto be carved over the main entrance: “This is not the Yale Library. That is inside.”


Sterling’s entrance is a great cathedral-like nave.

The library is a masterpiece of modern Gothic architecture. It was designed by James Gamble Rogers ’89, the architect of many Yale buildings, including the Hall of Graduate Studies, Harkness Tower, and the Harkness Memorial Quadrangle. The Sterling is constructed of granite and Indiana limestone in varying hues and is dominated by a 15-story book tower. Its entrance is a great cathedral-like nave with vaulted aisles, clerestoried lighting, and stained glass windows. At the Sterling’s dedication in April 1931, Yale president James Rowland Angell called it “a very temple of the mind.”

Planning for the temple began in 1918, when it was announced that John William Sterling ’64, a wealthy corporate attorney, had bequeathed $17 million to Yale. His only stipulation was that the university should create “at least one enduring useful, and architecturally beautiful edifice, which will constitute a fitting memorial of my gratitude to and affection for my Alma Mater.”

At the time of the bequest Keogh was coping with a collection that grown from 20,000 volumes in 1840 to more than a million. Yale decided that Sterling’s principal memorial should be a library. Keogh, who had been on the library staff for more than 15 years prior to his appointment in 1916, was made Sterling Professor of Bibliography in 1924. He worked closely with Rogers, as well as with Yale administrators, librarians, and faculty, to create an edifice that would be the centerpiece of a stunning new Collegiate Gothic campus and, Keogh hoped, the largest and best library facility in the world.

For the librarian and his staff it was an enormous task to organize a central library from the existing three core buildings and numerous collections that were scattered throughout the campus. His only disappointment was that his request for a 5 million-volume facility resulted, in his calculation, in a capacity for only 3.5 million. In 1930 the library, with seating for 2,000 readers, was completed at an expenditure of nearly $8 million. The Sterling Trustees provided an additional maintenance fund of $2 million.

While the building was taking shape, Professor Chauncey Brewster Tinker ’89, a commanding presence in the English department, worked to encourage the donation of funds and private collections. In an address to the alumni in 1924, Tinker stated: “There are three distinguishing marks of a university: a group of students, a corps of instructors, and a collection of books, and of these three the most important is the collection of books.” He reminded the alumni that no university or civilization could exist without “the recorded thought of the past,” and pointed out to those alumni whose primary interest was teaching rather than research, “you must have teachers here who are men and learned men,” and “a library of millions of volumes, with strange books in it, out-of-the-way books, rare books, and expensive books.” The alumni donated generously. (The Yale Library Associates, founded in 1930, is also celebrating its 75th anniversary.)


L&B was meant to encourage non-academic reading.

In his 1931 annual report Keogh marveled over the wealth of new donations. These included superb collections of the books and manuscripts of George Meredith and James Fenimore Cooper, the papers of Yale president Ezra Stiles, George Alexander Kohut’s collection of material by and about Heinrich Heine, and “Einstein’s own statement of his latest theory of relativity.” The library’s own purchases included Michael Wigglesworth’s Meat Out of the Eater, the only known copy of the 1670 edition.

The collection stood at nearly two million volumes by the time the Sterling opened. And Keogh and his successors expanded the concept of what a great library should collect by acquiring new types of materials, such as maps, wartime ephemera, photographs, and recordings.

But the library’s cornerstone remained the original 40 books contributed by Yale’s founding ministers. To honor the 17 surviving volumes, librarians carried them in a ceremonial procession from the Old Library to Sterling and placed them on the shelves as the first books in the new library.

One of the most important parts of the new library was the Rare Book Room. According to Tinker, its opening marked “the first time the University’s collection of rare books and manuscripts became visible to the public and readily accessible to students.” The Sterling also included a special undergraduate reading room named Linonia and Brothers, in honor of the student literary societies that were once pillars of undergraduate social life. (Linonia debuted in 1753, Brothers-in-Unity in 1768.) Meant to encourage non-academic reading, L&B was fashioned around a Tudor-style hall, which featured a fireplace and cozy paneled alcoves with low casement windows opening out to the courtyard. The room was originally furnished like a gentlemen’s club, with leather divans, ottomans, thick rugs, and smoking stands. Women were not allowed in the room until the 1960s.

“The library is the heart of the university” reads the inscription by Sterling’s main entrance. (Keogh’s motto was never adopted.) At the dedication ceremonies, President Angell praised “the librarian, the architect, and the builder” who “conjured up a dream of surpassing majesty and then translated it into innumerable ingenious and gracious forms. … Here is incarnate the intellectual and spiritual life of Yale.” For 75 years, Sterling Memorial Library has been and will continue to be the heart of the university, a magnetic force that brings together outstanding research materials and scholars and provides an inspirational setting for their interaction.





Interior Decorating

The Sterling Memorial Library is lavishly ornamented to illustrate the histories of books, writing, and Yale. There is sculpture by Lee Lawrie, best known for his statue of Atlas near Rockefeller Center in New York City, as well as by Rene P. Chambellan, who was responsible for most of the stone carving; decorative ironwork by Samuel Yellin, a Philadelphia-based master craftsman whose work was commissioned for universities, cathedrals, and private homes around the country; and stained glass designed by the extraordinary artist G. Owen Bonawit.

Among the treasures:

Sculpture by Lawrie and Chambellan depicting the written records of ancient civilizations

80 pictorial glass panes by Bonawit of scenes in the history of New Haven and Yale

A mural, by Eugene Savage, of Alma Mater receiving gifts from Light, Truth, Science, Labor, Music, Fine Arts, Divinity, and Literature

Carvings, inscriptions, and window decorations for 60 special-collection, seminar, and study rooms, such as: illustrations from Huckleberry Finn and Hiawatha in the room housing the American literature collection; reliefs adapted from an Assyrian palace for the Babylonian collection; and portraits of World War I–era leaders for the Colonel Edward M. House collection.


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