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Newman celebrates 40 years as Tech's library

By Clara B. Cox

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 30 - May 2, 1996

"From a chamber small/Came this mighty hall/Towering proud and high," wrote Ralph Minthorne Brown, a retired Virginia Tech librarian, when he learned 40 years ago that a building constructed specifically to house the school's library would be dedicated.

The building, named Newman Library in memory of longtime English professor and department head Carol Montgomery Newman, opened on Sept. 17, 1955, and was dedicated on May 11, 1956. The Friends of the University Libraries will celebrate the 40th anniversary of that dedication on May 9, beginning at 10 a.m. in the Newman Library lobby with ceremonies featuring Paul Metz, principal bibliographer, as the main speaker, and concluding with a reception on the Alumni Hall lawn. Nolan Yelich, state librarian, will participate in the event, which is open to the public.

The initial efforts for a suitable library facility began with Brown. He worked diligently for a new building after spending a decade in a facility dubbed the "temple of termites" by the local media. His efforts ultimately reaped the benefit he had so desired, although not during his tenure.

Construction of Newman Library was ensured in 1953 when Paul Mellon, president of the Old Dominion Foundation and a member of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, offered $1 million to go with another $1 million approved the previous year by the Virginia General Assembly.

Today, Newman Library, branch libraries in geology, veterinary medicine, art and architecture, and the Northern Virginia Graduate School; and the new storage facility near Blacksburg's Huckleberry Trail, house more than 1.9 million printed volumes, 17,000 serial subscriptions, five million microforms, 130,000 audiovisual and machine-readable pieces, and 120,000 maps.

Neither the numbers nor the facilities were always so impressive.

When Virginia Tech opened in 1872 as Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, V.E. Shepherd, treasurer, secretary of the faculty, and foreign-language professor, was also assigned the position of college librarian.

The new school's 500-volume collection, which Shepherd described as "Appleton's New Encyclopedia, several excellent scientific works and about an oxload of government reports, Codes of Virginia, and other important but almost useless books of a like character," occupied one small room in the Preston and Olin Building. The room also served as the librarian's office and a reading room.

For the first few decades, the collection had no relationship to the curriculum of the college, and inadequate funding hampered the library's effectiveness. The first known appropriation-$39.10-went to the library in 1878. Appropriations remained small, sometimes totaling only $15-35 a year for books and supplies, not topping $1,000 until 1904.

During the 1877-78 school term, VAMC moved its library to the first floor of the Second Academic Building. Five years later, the collection, now totaling 1,200 volumes, gained a new home in the second-floor ballroom, the largest room in the building.

In 1903 the college hired its first professional librarian, Mary G. Lacy, to oversee the holdings of 2,500 books and 10,000 pamphlets.

Lacy worked with a U.S. Department of Agriculture librarian to classify the entire collection. She talked the two student literary societies into donating their meeting rooms to increase space for the growing collection. She collected and displayed newspapers from students' hometowns, got the library designated as a depository for federal documents, created a dictionary catalogue of holdings, and more than quadrupled the holdings. When she resigned in 1910, her sister, Ethel, succeeded her for three years.

In 1914 the college moved the entire library into the chapel-auditorium-called the "Dutch Barn" by the faculty and students-located on the site now occupied by Newman Library. Woefully inadequate, the building had no window screens and, reportedly, "bats, birds, and squirrels frequented the library almost as often as did the students." Constructed over steam tunnels, the building harbored flourishing colonies of silverfish, cockroaches, and termites, which damaged many books.

The facility had been used for 11 years when Brown began his 21-year tenure as librarian. With the collection and patrons increasing and the Dutch Barn in such bad condition, he began lobbying in 1935 for a new building. When he retired in 1946, the Dutch Barn still housed the library. His successor, Seymour Robb, suggested that the college hire an impartial library-study team, and the 1949 survey that followed produced the same conclusions as Brown: the college needed a new and larger building to house its library.

By 1951, the Dutch Barn had reached "saturation" point; it held no more space for expansion. Within two years, funds were secured to build Newman, and Brown could later write, "The fight is won."