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College Row
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Frost Library turns 1 million

Frost Library passes two major milestones this year: the acquisition of its millionth volume and the retirement of Librarian of the College Willis E. Bridegam, under whose leadership the library acquired fully half of its holdings. In April the college marked the arrival of the millionth volume with a two-day celebration, an event that also honored Bridegam, who finishes his 29-year term in September.

The celebration included music, speeches, a bound collection of student poems solicited for the occasion and a panel discussion on poet James Merrill ’47. The presentation ceremony featured remarks from, among others, poet Richard Wilbur ’42 and Henry Clay Folger Professor of English William Pritchard ’53. For the 200 students, faculty, townspeople and visitors from across the country who attended, the celebration also was an opportunity to view the recently installed electronic poetry display in the library’s lobby. The computer-controlled display—the first of its kind, according to Bridegam—each day projects on a screen a different poem by a poet associated with Amherst. The project is a gift from Polly and Charles Longsworth ’51, who also came up with the concept.

The millionth volume actually consisted of eight separate elements, representing various forms of information stored in the library. The Friends of the Amherst College Library donated The American Periodical Series, an online full-text database of more than 1,100 American magazines and journals published between 1741 and 1860. The Friends also donated The AMICO Library, an online database containing more than 100,000 works of art, and The Tiger’s Eye, a journal of art and literature. The Class of 2006 donated a DVD of the film Chicago, one of 59 films the class has donated over the course of the past year. The college’s substantial scientific holdings were enhanced by an institutional charter membership in the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit electronic publishing venture founded by Harold Varmus ’61 to provide open access to scientific articles. A CD of Verdi’s opera Otello represented more than 10,000 music CDs given to the library by a friend of the college, Richard Mietzelfeld. Jack Hagstrom ’55 donated Jim’s Book: A Collection of Poems and Short Stories by James Merrill ’47. (This book, privately printed by the poet’s father, Charles Merrill ’08, is one of the rarest and most sought-after volumes of modern poetry.)

The principal gift was a collection of James Merrill’s letters, written to William Burford ’49 when both men were students at Amherst and co-editors of the literary magazine The Medusa. The collection, purchased through a gift from the Friends of the Amherst College Library, was presented by Friends chairman Samuel B. Ellenport ’65.

Merrill’s letters and poems were the subject of the symposium held on the second day of the celebration. Panelists included Merrill’s biographer, Langdon Hammer; Hagstrom, Merrill’s bibliographer; Merrill’s nephew Robin Magowan; the poet’s literary executer, Stephen Yenser; and poets Richard Wilbur ’42 and Daniel Hall, writer in residence at Amherst. Participants not only discussed Merrill’s work, but several also recalled their personal memories of the poet. His nephew described Merrill as “a brilliant conversationalist and nobody’s fool,” who loved Palm Beach “because it had the two essentials: shops and sand.” Richard Wilbur recalled Merrill’s partner, David Jackson, describing their Florida house as being full of nothing but literature (with “literature” being rendered in capital letters). “I guess that was quite true,” Wilbur said. “But when I think of other houses that have been nothing but literature, I think of rather deadly places, places full of stuffy professionalism or grim ambition. There was none of that there. I think that part of it was that in addition to their great love of literature and the arts, they were utterly devoted to many people, as of course the poems tell us.”

Although the celebration officially commemorated the millionth-volume acquisition, most of the participants also used the occasion to honor Bridegam as
he neared retirement. Among the many accomplishments of Bridegam’s tenure are the remodeling of the library; the creation of the Media Center—one of the first of its kind; the establishment of the Amherst offsite book storage center; and the conversion from a card catalogue to a digital catalogue—a mammoth undertaking that began in 1980 and was completed only in the past two years. In all of these accomplishments, Bridegam is quick to cite the efforts and talent of his staff, and says he leaves knowing the library will be in good hands.

Even on the eve of retirement, Bridegam is introducing new resources. The library recently added the book database E-brary, which stores the complete text of 15,000 books that can be searched for a word or phrase. Electronic texts like these, Bridegam says, are the future of the library. “I doubt we’ll ever have a two-millionth volume,” he says. “And that’s fine, because I think it’s the information that’s really important. I grew up with a book in my hand, but many of our students grew up looking at a screen.” That observation is borne out by the number of people using the library’s 3,200 electronic periodicals. In the past year, Bridegam says, users searched the Lexis/Nexis periodical database 42,000 times, the ScienceDirect database nearly 30,000 times and the PsychInfo database 20,000 times.

Despite the convenience and power of online research, the number of people using the library in person is increasing significantly—perhaps the strongest
testament to Bridegam’s work. “This past year,” he says, “our total use went up 4 percent, and our student use went up 7 percent. That’s amazing, considering that we’re going more and more to electronic formats. People don’t have to come to the library for some information, and yet they’re seeing the library as a place where they want to come.”

Just as impressive is the involvement of alumni, who clearly have positive memories of the library. Each year, Bridegam says, alumni donate in-kind gifts with a value of between $750,000 and $1 million.

“This is a great job,” he says. “You don’t find a better job than this one right here. But to have the freedom to schedule your own day, that’s what’s so attractive about retirement—to do the things that are most important to you.” For Bridegam that means, among other things, composing music. He received his undergraduate degree from the Eastman School of Music and did some composing in his first years out of school, but put it aside as his library career took off. Two years ago he took up music again, producing a suite for piano and setting seven of Emily Dickson’s poems for soprano and piano. Now he is working on setting four Psalms, two of which are finished, and he is planning a string quartet.

Books are in his blood, however, and he will still be involved with them even in retirement. He recently was elected a trustee of Amherst’s Jones Library and is a member of the Grolier Club, a group of book collectors and bibliophiles based in New York. And then there is reading. He says he has 10 books lined up waiting for him. “As a librarian,” he says, “my biggest regret is that I haven’t had much time to read.”

Fortunately, there’s a good library nearby.

Next: Seven receive honorary degrees >>

Photo: Frank Ward

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