In 1846, John Carter Brown — the youngest son of Brown’s namesake patron, Nicholas Brown Jr. — began collecting books. Focusing his collection efforts on the history of the Americas, he amassed a library that became the foundation of the current John Carter Brown Library.
Today, the JCB “welcomes individuals and communities from around the world to research, learn and share knowledge about the early Americas through its collections,” according to the library’s website. While it sits on the southeast corner of the Main Green, the library is independent of the University, though it is integrated into the community through collaboration with various University departments and institutions, according to Professor of History and JCB Director and Librarian Karin Wulf.
The Herald spoke with library staff, University professors and students to learn about recent changes in the library and where it’s headed next.
‘Mindful stewardship’: Grappling with library history
For Carter Brown, the Americas and European colonization were “the great subject,” said Kimberly Nusco, associate librarian for research and reference at the JCB.
“He decided to focus his collecting on books relating to the history of the Americas, from the first point of European contact with the hemisphere in the 15th century … until 1800,” she said. The library continues to collect books from up to the middle of the 19th century, in order to “cover the entire colonial period.”
The materials, though, were not made available to scholars until the death of Carter Brown’s eldest son, John Nicholas Brown II, who inherited the collection, according to the JCB website. Nicholas Brown wrote in his will that the collection should go to a college in Rhode Island or anywhere in the U.S. — leading trustees to place the collection in the University’s trust.
Nicholas Brown also prioritized the collection of maps and atlases, said Bertie Mandelblatt, curator of maps and prints at the JCB. Today, the collection has “one of the top three or four (map and atlas collections) in the country,” according to Mandelblatt.
“I’m always on the lookout for maps that we don’t have,” she added, emphasizing that she searches for “historically important maps, maps that nobody knows about, unrecorded maps.”
The library was “state-of-the-art” when it was first built, Nusco said, highlighting features such as the bronze shelves and the venting along the bottom of the bookcases in the reading room. These features demonstrate that the library was “very carefully planned for the preservation of books” at its inception, Nusco explained.
In 1991, the library launched “an additional campaign to create climate-controlled stacks for the growing collection” Nusco said. She described the renovation as “architecturally very notable,” as the new addition blends in seamlessly from the outside.
Nusco and Mandelblatt emphasized that in addition to acquisition and preservation, the library is dedicated to grappling with its history as an institution. For example, through the exhibit “1846: Inventing Americana at the John Carter Brown Library” — which opened May 19 — the library shares its “earliest history” and “begins to suggest some of its implications for subsequent scholarship,” according to the library’s website.
The exhibit’s content was motivated by the JCB’s “curators thinking about what it means to set yourself up as defining Americana,” Nusco said. “What was John Carter Brown thinking when he was talking about the Americas?”
“In 2023, we’re very interested in different ways of telling that story, that put different people at the forefront,” Mandelblatt said.
“Our collecting interests are different than John Carter Brown’s collecting interests,” Nusco said. “Our scholarly interests will be different than his as well.”
‘Welcome and Access’: Making the library more accessible
In addition to reflecting on the museum’s past, the library is dedicated to making itself accessible to a wider audience through a “Welcome and Access” plan, an initiative that officially began in November 2021, The Herald previously reported.
“The whole library really worked together on all the different aspects of the welcome and access plan,” Mandleblatt said.
As part of the initiative, the library appointed its first Coordinating Curator for Native American and Indigenous Materials, Kimberly Toney. The role is a joint position between the John Hay Library and the JCB.
“The collections are different but they complement each other,” Toney said.
Toney views her role as thinking about “how we continue to ethically and mindfully steward materials from both collections that speak to forced assimilation and dispossession of Indigenous peoples across continents” and “how we promote access … to local tribal communities … how we facilitate and make people aware of their rights to access the collections.”
“I am Nipmuc myself, so I have deep connections to homelands in central Massachusetts and also the northern part of Rhode Island,” she said, referencing her membership in the Hassanamisco Band of Nipmuc.
“It can be difficult to navigate colonial archives or colonial spaces while trying to prioritize the needs and desires of sovereign Native nations, but it has been wonderful to be at the JCB and feel supported in doing that work,” Toney added.
Toney views the welcome and access plan as “a personal mandate,” and hopes to continue connecting with tribal nations “because the JCB is made open to the public and there are a lot of incredible, rich resources for Indigenous people to explore.”
Digitizing the collection is an important part of the library’s mission to be more accessible. According to Nusco, digitization efforts have been in progress for more than 10 years in an effort to make the library’s collection publicly accessible to not just Brown students but the wider community.
In the past, the JCB’s collection existed on various digital platforms; its new database — Americana — will aim to integrate “all of those in one platform,” Nusco said.
“This idea of making the collections available beyond the walls of the library is not new — it’s actually one of the pillars of the library,” Mandelblatt added. In the past, mimeographs and other methods served as ways of distributing copies of materials.
Roger Shaw Williams, head of libraries conservation at the JCB and the Hay, also works to make collections more accessible by overseeing their physical preservation.
“Conservation is all about access. Basically, everything I do is an attempt to give access to something where access is limited because of (its) condition,” he said. “When I help out with exhibits and loans, I’m trying to provide access in the most responsible way.”
Williams’s position is new as of 2022, while he has also been building a conservation lab in the library’s former mailroom since he started working for the JCB.
Another new development this year — also part of the welcome and access plan — has been the hiring of student workers to greet visitors.
Martina Herman ’26 and Kolya Shields ’24 both serve as reading room assistants. According to Herman and Shields, their work includes greeting visitors and helping out with labeling, shelving and cataloging.
Herman described the library as a “great environment” and appreciated that she’s “gotten to talk to many researchers,” which has been “super enriching.”
Shields added that the opportunity to chat with “scholars from around the world” is a benefit of the position.
In addition to physical renovations to make the library more accessible, Nusco also emphasized the importance of “working out ways to communicate with the community and interacting more with groups that are interested in the collection,” as it is “a great resource for the University community.”
“Anyone can register and request a rare material to use from the collection … We are here, we are open, this isn’t an exclusive place,” Nusco said. “Our curators are ready to work to develop all kinds of projects.”
Nusco emphasized that the library hopes to continue collaborating with Brown classes. “We do offer workshops for courses and any kind of group at Brown who could draw on our collections,” she said.
James Egan, a professor of English, said he has been collaborating with the JCB for “pretty much my whole career as a faculty member.”
When reading materials created before 1800, “it’s actually important that … the students know what the material, what a book that someone would have read looks like, feels like and smells like,” Egan said.
Egan brought students in his class, ENGL 1310H: “The Origins of American Literature,” to the JCB Friday. He emphasized the expertise of library staff, stating that they “know the books in relation to one another in a way that I don’t.”
“When students fill out feedback at the end of the semester, consistently over the years, people will say the best part of this class was us going to the John Carter Brown,” he said.
Edward Hardy — an assistant professor of the practice of English — brought his class, ENGL 1030G: “Backstory,” there last semester. ”We go to a bunch of archives around here,” in order to “give everybody a sense of what’s in archives you can walk to from Brown,” he said.
“When you go to archives … you get a crisper and clearer sense of Brown and what has happened here in the not-very-far past,” Hardy added.
Daisy Zuckerman ’24 — who was in Hardy’s class last semester — had never been to the JCB before enrolling in Backstory. “It’s interesting to know that those artifacts exist on our campus and that we have such easy access to them,” she said.
“It was pretty cool to me to be aware that those items are a few minutes away from us at any given moment and they date back to the 1400s,” she added.
The library also has collaborated with other institutions, such as the Rhode Island School of Design and New York University, according to Mandelblatt.
‘An exciting time to be at the JCB’: Looking ahead
In the future, Williams hopes to “integrate conservation practices with everything that the JCB does.” Williams added that “conservation needs to be involved with … being open to the public.”
Williams also hopes to collaborate with physical science departments in the future. “Conservation is a meeting point between science and the humanities,” he said.
“Conservators have to have a little bit of a background in chemistry,” he added, saying he hopes to see “more scientific collaboration with all of the great science facilities on campus.”
Nusco said another key focus of the library will be continuing to rebuild staff, as the pandemic led to staff members leaving the library.
Mandelblatt also hopes to hold more exhibitions at the library. According to her, there used to be two to three exhibits a year, which slowed with the COVID-19 pandemic. She hopes to start “working back toward a moment where there will be a rotating schedule of exhibitions.”
“The same book or map can appear in dozens of different exhibitions, but it will tell a different story each time,” she added.
Currently, there are two exhibitions in the reading room in addition to the 1846 exhibit — one about scholarship related to the JCB and one about the artifacts dug up during the recent renovation.
Mandelblatt emphasized the relevance of the JCB’s collection to Brown students. “The histories I’ve been talking about are really at the forefront of so many social justice movements,” she said, “these movements that Brown students take very seriously and are involved with.”
Indigo Mudbhary is a University news senior staff writer covering student government. In her free time, she enjoys running around Providence and finding new routes.