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What the Hay hides: exploring the Special Collections

Curators aim to increase relevance, address problematic past

 The John Hay Library will supplement its current offerings with additions focused on modern subjects such as LGBTQIA+ culture.
The John Hay Library will supplement its current offerings with additions focused on modern subjects such as LGBTQIA+ culture.

The John Hay Library, a looming marble building that sits across from the Van Wickle Gates, evokes a sense of mystery and distance. Apart from the occasional study session in the Willis Reading Room, many students have not visited the stacks and exhibitions that contain the library’s extensive collections. While the Hay stacks contain volumes that seem obscure, esoteric or even mystifying, recent curation efforts aim to create a set of collections more relevant to today’s University community.

Built in 1910, the Hay is the second oldest library at the University and was the main campus library until the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library opened across the street in 1964. Upon the request of Andrew Carnegie, who contributed half of the $300,000 used to construct the building, the library was named after John Hay 1858, former U.S. Secretary of State. Today, the Hay houses the University’s special collections and is closed-stack, meaning that items are non-circulating and can only be viewed on site. According to the website of the Brown University Library, the Hay contains 1.5 million archival files and records, one million manuscripts, half a million pieces of sheet music, 400,000 monographs and more. 

One well-known component of the special collections is a set of four anthropodermic books  bound in human skin. One of these books, “On the Fabric of the Human Body” by Belgian surgeon Andreas Versalius is an anatomy text, like many other anthropodermic books. Laura Hartman, rare-book cataloger at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, hypothesized in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that physicians often bound their book in human skin to honor these individuals who contributed to the medical field. Two others are copies of The Dance of Death, originally published in 1538.  

While items like these draw attention from the student population, librarians say that other lesser-known collections are equally unique and valuable. 


The Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection is a large collection of paintings, books, photos, sheet music and miniature soldiers that was donated to the Hay in 1982 by Anne Seddon Kinsolving Brown. 

According to Peter Harrington, curator of the military collection, Brown developed an interest in military uniforms as a young child, when she bought a book on soldiers that remains in the collection today. Brown purchased her first toy soldier from a shop during her honeymoon in Europe after she married John Nicholas Brown II. During World War II, she wrote about a toy shop in London that sold toy soldiers and had been destroyed during a bombing raid. Brown had “a vision that the whole history of military uniforms would be destroyed by the war,” so she “took it upon herself to save as much as she could.” 

Before the collection was placed at the Hay, it was housed in the Nightingale-Brown House, where the Brown family lived for five generations. 

Brown’s military collection “was everywhere,” Harrington said. “Every bookshelf, every corridor, every nook and cranny had books.” She even employed a full-time curator and had two servants who would process new items arriving from Europe. 

The thousands of miniature soldiers that Brown purchased are currently in glass cases on the third floor of the Hay, while the rest of the materials are in the library’s stacks.

The H. Adrian Smith Collection of Conjuring and Magicana is another Hay collection that subverts the stereotypical image of fragile books and yellowed manuscripts — instead composed of materials used for magic tricks, such as props, instructions, photographs, wands and various memorabilia. 

According to Smith’s biography on the Archival Collection’s website, he graduated from Brown with a Sc.B in Electrical Engineering in 1930, using money earned from his magic performances to pay for his tuition. Smith’s biography claims that he “became an internationally known bibliographer of conjuring literature,” with this collection now deemed “one of the finest private collections of magicana in the world.”

One of the most well-known items in the collection is a life-sized prop head of Harry Kellar, a famous magician. Another section of the collection is composed exclusively of wands of various styles. 

As the Hay’s Special Collections continue to expand, the library has moved to make the collections more relevant and diverse. 

In 2020, the creation of the John Hay Library Collection Policy organized the current Special Collections along six themes, including “The University and Beyond,” “Popular Literature” and “Global Lavender Voices,” which celebrates LGBTQIA+ culture. 


The new policy helped the library staff draw comparisons between the Hay’s Special Collections and other special collections libraries, thus highlighting weaknesses and gaps in the collections, according to Jennifer Betts, assistant director for the John Hay Library and University archivist. “An essential element of any acquisitions discussion is ‘How does this diversify our collections?’” Betts wrote in an email to The Herald. “It is important for Special Collections materials to reflect many different groups and ensure many voices can be heard in the Library’s collections,” she added. 

Because of the long history and vast amount of material contained in the Hay’s Special Collections, some items inevitably are connected to problematic pasts. One collection in the library is dedicated to manuscripts, letters and drawings by Howard P. Lovecraft, a renowned writer of science and horror fiction. Despite the importance of his work in 20th century literature, Lovecraft is also a well-known racist and often outwardly expressed his bigotry in his letters. 

“The John Hay Library acknowledges Lovecraft’s problematic history,” explained Betts. She also pointed to an online exhibition called “The Racial Imaginaries of H.P. Lovecraft” published in 2020 by then-Brown University Library Exhibitions Proctor Alberto Alcaraz Escarcega. The exhibition argues that “a closer look at his personal correspondence reveals that ... ‘race’ exerted a tremendous influence on Lovecraft by shaping both his politics and literary work to a great extent.”

Recently, the library was offered roughly a dozen military figurines that depicted “West Indian” soldiers. “And I thought, I’ll take those, because if you look around the special collection, it’s mostly a lot of white men: white men marching, white men fighting, white men sitting,” said Harrington. 

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Similarly, for the Smith Magic Collections, three-quarters of new items being added represent women or other underrepresented groups, curator Tiffini Bowers told the Brown Alumni Magazine in 2019. 

Just two months ago, the military collection also received an engraving of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot juxtaposed with a scene of the British attacking Washington D.C. during the War of 1812. With these additions, Harrington hopes that “undergraduates, graduates and faculty will see the value of the military collection beyond just lots of pictures of Napoleon’s armies.” 

“How do we address that material?,” Harrington said of the lack of diversity and problematic aspects of the collections. “We can just sort of hide it away and say ‘Oh whatever, it happened.” But, he asked, “how do we use that for teaching purposes?”

Betts emphasized the importance of keeping materials that can be viewed as problematic, in an effort to avoid burying history. “While collections such as Lovecraft are troubling, it is important to maintain these materials in order to fully document history,” wrote Betts. “Without archival collections, extremist points of view could be hidden and history misrepresented.”

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