Spencer House Hidden Library Provides Insight into College History – The Williams Record

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The Spencer Library contains many old books, including this volume. (JohnCarl McGrady /Williams’ record)

The college libraries house 768,252 books, according to the college’s website. However, scattered across campus, in faculty offices, and in glass-walled lecture halls, are a plethora of libraries in miniature and eclectic collections of books that the College does not catalog. One of these miniature bookcases, tucked away in a dimly lit room in Spencer House, offers a glimpse into university life from the distant past to the present.

By my calculations, the Spencer Library contains 647 books. The content of these books is as varied as their age, ranging from novels to Greek grammar guides to collections of poetry to The witch of prague To Majority leaders in the United States House. The oldest book is 132 years old and the most recent came out two years ago.

“I don’t know how much [the books] would be for classes, ”said Nick Servedio, resident of Spencer House. Partly, he said, is because the books aren’t organized. The Dewey decimal system does not matter; these books are not classified in alphabetical order or even classified by genre. The library contains three copies of Balzac’s novels, and neither of them are in the same library.

No librarian has cataloged the shelves of the Spencer Library or attempted to enforce order out of chaos, as far as Libraries Director Jonathan Miller knows. In fact, according to Miller, the College’s official libraries have no record of the Spencer Library.

It could mean that the Spencer Library isn’t, well, a library. “What separates a library from a bunch of books in the same room is the question of organization,” Miller said. “But frankly, there is no law – there is no rule on how to use the word.”

Whether or not the room is technically a library, Servedio said students don’t often use it as such. He assumed the books belonged to students who lived in Spencer in the past. Sitting on the armrest of one of the sofas in the room, he sketched a dramatic vision of who might have used the library once. “I’m sure some secret society groups on campus have used it as a meeting point,” he said.

I imagined one of these societies assembled by the light of the library fireplace, surrounded by leather-bound books, speaking in a low voice.

The record could not verify if any secret societies had ever met at Spencer House, but it did house the Chi Psi fraternity for half a century after its construction in 1909. The fraternity ceded the house to the College to the late 1960s after the abolition of fraternities.

Some of the books in the Spencer Library are the work of famous authors, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne. (JohnCarl McGrady /Williams’ record)

It’s not just the vibe of the Spencer Library – the frayed backs, the fireplace, the smell of old paper – that makes it what it is. Each of these books is a story. Not just the literal story between the covers, but also the story of who owned them. Often these people have left inscriptions, their words becoming part of the story.

Many books have names on the inside of the cover, such as a French spelling book belonging to a certain D. Roberts. Some of the notes are simple questions, hanging in the ether, like the math problems scribbled on the cover of an old paperback: “1730 – 1500 = 230.” What prompted this rushed equation ? Why is it written at the beginning of a collection of poetry?

Others contain memorabilia from former students. “Barron was a chief of maneuvers … and a student at the Cambridge National School of Business,” part of one entry reads. “He died in the [military] service [on] May 15, 1919. I was able to find Barron Brainerd, Class of 1915, in a scanned copy of a book commemorating Harvard students who died in WWI. A member of the Chi Psi fraternity, he was an editor at Save, he loved flowers, and he once saved two boys from drowning. He died at the age of 26. I couldn’t find any of the other names I saw in the inscriptions, those fading pencil lines, their lingering mark in history.

Barron Brainerd was a Williams student and naval maneuver leader, and died at the age of 26. (JohnCarl McGrady /Williams’ record)

Among the collection are several yearbooks, and from these it is possible to glimpse the long-lost generations of Williams students. “The brutal Hayden is another holy terror of Kiski,” reads an ironic description of Hayden Robinson, class of 1917. Another page laments a disappointing golf year: “An unsuccessful season of five consecutive losses has barely been redeemed by the unique victory over the traditional rival: Amherst. The “A” in “An” is illuminated like the first letter of a Gutenberg Bible.

The most recent books added to the Spencer Library line the shelf closest to the entrance. Most are meant for college classes, but some aren’t, like a Dan Brown thriller. It is possible to glean some information on the students who left these books: the courses they were able to take, their taste for fiction.

But neither the inscriptions nor the books they decorate are eternal monuments. The spines crack, the pages crumble, the pencil fades. In official libraries, these books would face an uncertain future. Miller explained that depending on their value, relevance, and how many other copies exist, the books may or may not be kept. “We might just throw the book away,” he said. However, in Spencer the books will not be kept or thrown away. They may not even be touched.

Many books are missing covers and many notes are illegible. Some pages are so fragile that I didn’t dare turn them, and other books that I left on the shelf for fear their pages would scatter on the floor if I tried to remove them. Thick black dust covers other volumes, smearing my fingers like charcoal. When I tried to look at a French play, the cover peeled off and stuck to a copy of Tristan and Iseult.

Spencer House is named after Phillip Spencer, but I couldn’t find anything about him on Google or in the College Library database. Perhaps the house is all that is left of its heritage, stripped of a name, like D. Roberts in French spelling.


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