A New Home for the National Sporting Library
by Laura Rose
In a 1995 article in this journal, I wrote that that the National Sporting Library, which has a world-class collection of books on horse and field sports, was the best-kept secret in the quiet, historic town of Middleburg, Virginia. Secret? With all the blasting, bulldozing, and building that has accompanied the construction of its new 15,000-square foot facility on the west end of town, the library is now anything but, and it promises to remain a hot topic on the streets of Middleburg and beyond as it opens the doors this fall to its new home and ushers in a colorful and exciting new era in its history.
For nearly 30 years the library has been housed in the basement of Vine Hill, an 1804 brick mansion in Middleburg. Many of the visitors making their way down to the library space, which has a leaky vault and one two-by-three-foot window, have commented on the less-than-perfect conditions for both books and the people who work with and enjoy them. As the library grew, it began bursting at the seams, and in the early 1990s the library's board began to research possibilities for expansion. In the end the decision was made to construct a state-of-the-art facility—one designed with optimum conditions in mind—on the same seven-acre site as Vine Hill. The result is a library whose biggest challenges in the near future will be not its limitations, but a lack of them as it expands both as a research center and a member of its community.
The new facility will offer the library's 15,000-volume room to breathe and grow. A secure and environmentally-controlled rare book room will house the rare book collection, which includes items dating back to 1528. An audiovisual center will allow storage and viewing opportunities for films, videos and other materials. And, numerous attractive study areas will be available for researchers.
But researchers aren't the only ones who will benefit from the new facility, which includes an exhibit hall and a meeting room that will provide unlimited opportunities for the library to reach out to a diverse community. An inaugural exhibit featuring treasures from the library's collection will kick off an extensive program of exhibitions, events, lectures and other educational offerings eagerly anticipated by library users and supporters near and far, and by the 600 inhabitants of Middleburg and many residents in the surrounding areas.
Forty-five years after its founding, the library will finally have the home it deserves. The collection, which was perhaps appropriately first housed in a barn, was founded by Alexander Mackay-Smith and George L. Ohrstrom Sr., who envisioned a place where precious sporting book collections could be assembled for the use of researchers. A special "Founders' Room" will honor the men whose vision has been taken to the limit as the National Sporting Library has evolved into a bona fide research center with an international reputation in its fields of study.
Mr. Mackay-Smith, himself known around the world as a renowned scholar on sporting subjects, was the library's guiding influence until his death last year at the age of 95. He served not only as curator and a member of the library's board of directors until that time, but from its inception was also the greatest fan and user of its collections. Not two weeks before his death he called the library to inquire about a title he needed to complete his tenth book, Speed and the Thoroughbred Racehorse, which is forthcoming.
Though Vine Hill will no longer house the National Sporting Library, it will still be the keeper of many of my fondest memories. It's where I unpacked box after box after box of incredible rare books from the remarkable 5,000-volume collection donated by collector John H. Daniels. It's where I had the opportunity to meet Paul Mellon, who in his will generously remembered the library with $1 million and numerous artworks, including a bronze of a Civil War mount that will stand in front of the new library building. It's where I watched the late Ellen B. Wells, the brilliant former chief of Special Collections at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, after the arrival of the NSL's von Hunersdorf Collection as she handled rare titles she had included in her unequaled 1985 bibliography on horsemanship--but had never actually seen.
Books figure prominently in many of my underground memories, but as any librarian knows, the parade of people who come to use them are also unforgettable. Have you had a huntsman stop in during a break in a field trial and blow you a tune on his hunting horn? Have you assisted a Pulitzer winner wearing a baseball cap? Have you been invited to a family reunion at which an historical marker you helped bring to life would be dedicated? Have you reunited childhood friends through your newsletter? Have you seen a romance blossom at one of your research tables?
Since joining the NSL in 1991, Peter Winants, now director emeritus, and I have watched the library grow in more ways than just its collections. Membership in The Friends of the National Sporting Library has tripled, and its members have become increasingly interested in the library's progress and activities. The annual duplicate book sale has increased in popularity and offerings, netting up to $20,000 in one year and placing thousands of books in book-loving homes. The library's newsletter has doubled in size and frequency and won a national award for excellence.
This year the library has grown in a new direction by adding invaluable assets to its staff. Four members have joined the ranks: Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, director; Elizabeth Manierre, exhibitions coordinator; Antoinette Arsic, assistant librarian; and Kelly Jordan, assistant director. Their energy and enthusiasm—along with that of the library's dedicated board of directors—can only lead to a new generation of unforgettable memories in the new library building.
More than one person has mentioned the NSL's transformation in terms of a Cinderella story. From barn to basement to beauty, it has been blessed thanks to the generosity of individuals who appreciate the library's distinguished past and support its goals for the future. As the National Sporting Library moves from best-kept secret into a star in the limelight, I will join the supporting cast proud to see it achieve the recognition and admiration it deserves.
Laura Rose is librarian of the National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Va.