Sunday, August 14, 2011

Charles Coffin Jewett, Pivotal Figure in American Librarianship

Michael H. Harris, writing in the Dictionary of American Library Biography (Libraries Unlimited, 1978), had this to say about Charles Coffin Jewett (1816-1868) concerning his tenure as a librarian: "Charles Coffin Jewett was the pivotal figure in American librarianship.  He was the first man to hold a full-time post as an academic librarian, the first librarian of what very nearly became the national library of the United States, the president of the first formal conference of librarians, and the first superintendent of the country's premier nineteenth century public library."  August 12 was the 195th anniversary of Jewett's birth. Jewett became librarian of Brown University in 1841 and was responsible for the landmark Catalogue of the Brown University Library in 1843 which provided for both alphabetical descriptive entries and subject entries. In 1847 Jewett was appointed librarian of the newly established Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian had been established by a bequest from British scientist James Smithson for "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men".  The vision for the Smithsonian of Smithsonian's first secretary, Joseph Henry, differed markedly from that of Jewett who among others felt the Smithsonian should be a national library. This disagreement led to Jewett's dismissal in 1855. Jewett was then hired by the Boston Public Library as a cataloger. He became the library's first superintendent in 1858.  In 1853 Jewett was actively involved in the first conference of librarians in the United States and was elected president of the conference. Jewett died as the result of an attack of apoplexy while at work in 1868 at the age of 52.  The iconic Smithsonian building known as the "Castle" was designed to include a library and reading room. In 1866 the Smithsonian's library collection was moved to the Library of Congress and became known as the "Smithsonian Deposit".  Ironically, this was one of the actions that helped propel the Library of Congress into becoming a true national library for the United States.  The Smithsonian Institution, of course, now has its own system of libraries to support its many museums. For a history of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries click HERE. Note: This year is the 165th anniversary of the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian has been commemorated on three United States Postage stamps.

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