Butler Library: an “Instrument of Productive Scholarship”

The Rotunda, when Low Library was a library. According to WikiCU, “the rotunda was the main reading room and held the circulation desk.” (Photo:WikiCU)

Low Library, completed in 1897, was intended to dominate Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus. It continues to. At the turn of the century, Low housed the library; today it houses the central administration.

Butler Library, which cost $4 million of Edward Harkness’s Standard Oil dollars*, replaced Low as Columbia’s library. Completed in 1934, it was known, geographically, as South Hall, until it was in 1946 named for outgoing, longtime University President Nicholas Murray Butler**.

Butler had served as president of Columbia between 1902 and 1945. He had guided the university through World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. And, though the library was named for him after he resigned the presidency, it, like most things at Columbia during his centralized (some would say autarchic) presidency did not escape Butler’s influence. According to Columbia University Libraries’ site on Butler Library’s history, “already put his stamp on the library, as he had selected the names carved along the porticos and on the panels, and had selected the quotations gracing the main rooms.” According to the Columbia Daily Spectator, “Butler chose the names of 18 thinkers to engrave along the façade of the building that now bares his name, as well as the names of 24 American statesmen and authors which are inscribed on the panels under the large front windows.”

Plans for Butler Library (Photo: WikiCU)

“Discussions for a new library began in 1927 when the university librarian addressed a 13 page letter to President Butler proposing to build a new library by connecting Low Library to University Hall,” says WikiCU. (University Hall, which was never completed, was eventually razed for the construction of Uris. It’s oval shape is still reflected underground in that of the Marcellus Hartley Dodge Gymnasium.) When the University Hall extension was rejected, Butler contracted architect John Gamble Rogers to build the new library on the south edge of campus, on 114th Street.

Butler Library more recently. (Photo:WikiCU)

According to an article in the Columbia Daily Spectator‘s recently digitized archives (digitized through a partnership with Columbia University Libraries and now hosted on CUL servers), South Hall was officially dedicated on November 30, 1934. “John Buchan, a member of the House of Commons of the English Parliament and noted British publicist, will deliver the principle address,” Spec reported. Buchan was a trustee of a Harkness foundation, the reporter added.

The New York Times wrote, “For the first time in a crowded and harried existence, the Columbia University Library has acquired in its new building what might be termed the physical amenities of reading and sturdy.” Later still: “One of the largest library structures in the world, it has been described by President Butler as the ‘finest academic building’ he has ever seen.” Then, at the dedication (at which Buchan fostered “Modesty in Politics and Learning”), the library was funnily called a “laboratory-library.”

When the cornerstone was laid, reported the New York Times, Butler himself “applied the mortar with a silver trowel that was first used thirty-five years ago in laying the cornerstone of the present university library [i.e. Low]. A copper sealed box containing records of the university was inserted in the cornerstone.” Butler praised Harkness’s “princely generosity,” adding that “The university proposes to use the building as one of its chiefest instruments of productive scholarship and public service […] It is a part, and evidence of wisdom, to leave something for some one else to do. We think that this great library laboratory will outlast our time.”

The Times then ran a brief feature article, complete with photographs of the “Fine Facilities for Reading and Study.” “There, in the comradely atmosphere of tobacco smoke and a wood fire, the urban student, once offered only sterner literary fare, may now relax and chuckle.”

In the interim, the library and its founding was much on the minds of students. In the 1941 April Fool’s issue of the Spectator, the seven year anniversary of the library was imagined. “Trustees and faculty members of the university [assembled] en masse on South Field” to fete the no longer new library. Hilariously, then-President Nicholas Murray Butler could not attend—he was “vacationing in Florida.” In his stead, Matthew P. South delivered the address. South, “an internationally known patron of the arts and rare-book collector” spoke “on the topic of ‘Libraries as Culture Crypts.’ ” “Other distinguised speakers includ Frank D. Fackenthal, Provost of the University, and Basketball Coach Paul Mooney.”

Following his speech, the Vam An Society performed a pageant (“How They Brought the Good Books from Low to South”). “Featured event of the day will be the erasure from the library’s frieze of the names of Homer, Plato, Aristotle and all other celebrated Greek authors by Professor Gabriele Malfezzi, executive director of Casa Italiana.”

Then on April 30, 1946, Spec reported a brief item: “South Hall to Be Renamed For Butler.” The article made up in grand language for what it lacked in length. “The name of Nicholas Murray Butler, for 43 years president of Columbia University and since October 1, 1945, president emeritus, will be perpetuated in the great library building on Morningside Heights which, since its dedication in 1934, has been known as South Hall.” No longer! Now, “one of the foremost university library buildings in the world” was “re-named the ‘Nicholas Murray Butler Library’ ” on account of “recent formal action by Trustees of the University.” The article continues to wax on Butler Library: “the imposing Italian Renaissance structure is one of the most moderne of the world’s great libraries.” It has an impressive “central book stack” with “[s]pecial devices [that] insure atmospheric and dust-proof conditions.” (The Times reported this, and took some copy from the Spec.)

*According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index inflation calculator, in 2014 dollars Low Library cost $70,083,880.60.

**As an aside: the fact that Butler went nameless for 12 years perhaps gives one hope that the newish Northwest Corner Building (before that the “Interdisciplinary Science Building,” and the “Northwest Science Building” still before that) might eventually get a real name.

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