Happy Birthday, Lilly Library

J. K. Lilly and Herman B Wells opening door to the newly-dedicated Lilly Library. October 3, 1960.
J. K. Lilly and Herman B Wells opening door to the newly-dedicated Lilly Library. October 3, 1960.

Fifty-five years ago, on October 3, 1960, Indiana University was the site of a momentous event. On that day, hundreds of people from Bloomington and from around the world gathered on campus to witness the dedication of the newly-completed Lilly Library, which was designed and constructed to preserve and make available the rare book and manuscript collections of Indiana University.

The dedication of this building to hold the University’s special collections was the culmination of decades of activity on the part of librarians and generous benefactors.  The University Library had begun collecting rare books in the early twentieth century, and in 1942, with the acquisition of Joseph B. Oakleaf’s Abraham Lincoln collection, there was enough significant material to warrant the creation of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, which was located in the building now known as Franklin Hall.  Other important collections of American history and literature soon followed, but it was the gift to IU in the mid-1950s of his collection of books and manuscripts by J. K. Lilly, Jr. that marked the turning point.  President Herman B Wells realized the importance of Mr. Lilly’s collection, and he felt that the University’s rare books and manuscripts should reside in a building better suited for their preservation and use, which should be situated at the center of campus in the “Fine Arts Plaza,” which was anchored by the Indiana University Auditorium, and which would soon include the Fine Arts Building and Showalter Fountain.

The Lilly Library was designed by the architectural firms of Eggers and Higgins of New York and A. M. Strauss of Fort Wayne.  The architects were inspired by other special collections libraries already existing on American college campuses, such as the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan and the Houghton Library at Harvard University, as well as by some of the other nearby limestone buildings on the IU campus.  The result was a building designed to serve both the research and museum functions of a special collections library, while maintaining views in the public areas of what has been called “the woodland campus of Indiana University.”  This attention to the variety of uses to which special collections libraries may be put, from curious visitors viewing the items on display, to senior researchers making detailed comparisons of books that can be found together only here in Bloomington, has remained a focus of the Lilly Library over the last fifty-five years, and the Library’s felicitous setting on IU’s woodland campus has helped to perpetuate the special feeling that permeated the dedication ceremonies of October 3, 1960.

Herman B Wells speaking at the dedication of The Lilly Library. October 3, 1960.
Herman B Wells speaking at the dedication of The Lilly Library. October 3, 1960.

The speakers on that day, from campus officials to visiting dignitaries, described the Lilly Library as a cultural treasure, as a place of wonder, and as a building in which the collected knowledge of the world would be preserved and disseminated.  This knowledge has grown exponentially since October 3, 1960, and the Lilly Library, as a part of the Indiana University Libraries, has continued to preserve and disseminate it.  We continue to expand our collections, which now include film scripts, mechanical puzzles, miniature books, artists’ books, as well as modern literary, historical, and scientific landmarks unknown to Mr. Lilly and the other collectors whose energy and generosity have helped to make the Lilly Library into a world-renowned research institution.  And we continue to expand the way that we disseminate this knowledge, from the photostatic copies of 1960 to electronically-published blog postings such as this.  On this day, we honor what our donors and predecessors have done for all of us, and we dedicate ourselves once again to the mission inscribed on the plaque just inside the Lilly Library’s front doorway, to preserve the “heritage of the best that has been thought and written through the ages.”

Joel Silver

Director

Lilly Library, Indiana University