The Watkinson Library at Trinity College and Its Brilliant Ornithology Collection

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by Karen Stevens
Originally published in Connecticut Libraries January 2009, a publication of the Connecticut Library Association

John J. Audubon’s extraordinary elephant folio, Birds of America, is prominently displayed in the Ostrom and Alice Talcott Enders Audubon meeting room of the Watkinson Library. A printer’s copy from the Gurdon Russell Natural History Collection, it is simply amazing, one of many rare and wonderful books held in the collections of the Watkinson Library, at Trinity College in Hartford.

Founded in 1858 as a “library of reference,” Watkinson is today an outstanding specialized research facility. Jeffrey H. Kaimowitz, curator of the Enders Ornithology Collection since 1994, and head librarian since 2001, maintains a long tradition of scholarship and service.

“I am not a bird watcher,” he says, “The curatorship of the Ornithology Collection became mine by default.” But his eyes sparkle as he says this, and his enthusiasm for his job is unmistakable, even if he does not sport binoculars!

His knowledgeable colleagues, Peter J. Knapp and Sally Dickinson, are also special collections librarians. Mr. Knapp serves as the college archivist, and is responsible for general and administrative records, and for records relating to students, faculty, staff and alumni. He has prepared a current exhibit that features Trinity’s Long Walk Buildings, drawing on images of and documents about the college’s impressive architecture, and is the author of Trinity College in the Twentieth Century, A History (2000).

Mrs. Dickinson, who came to special collections with a background in architecture, is responsible for cataloging rare and recent acquisitions. She has a special interest in conservation and oversees collections processing and conservation activities carried out by student assistants. She is curating an exhibition on 20th century American poetry for the spring of 2009.

From its inception, the Watkinson reference collection complemented other Hartford area organizations. Originally, it was located adjacent to and associated with the Wadsworth Atheneum and the nearby facilities of the Connecticut Historical Society, and with the Hartford Young Men’s Institute, which became the basis of the Hartford Public Library. The combined holdings of these organizations represented a rich concentration of the city’s cultural and intellectual heritage.

Typically for its time, the original young men’s library began as a private club for the exclusive edification of its subscribers. Members only! But just as the Atheneum offered its art for public view, use of the Watkinson collection was never intended for scholars only, but was by legal stipulation made available to the general public as a non-circulating reference collection. Its funding, however, was not from public sources. Founder David Watkinson’s vision was supported by a generous endowment of $1,000,000, by far his most significant bequest. Watkinson’s “library of reference accessible ... to all citizens and other residents and visitors to the state of Connecticut” has survived to this day.

Over time, the library outgrew its space, the physical plant deteriorated and the initial endowment dwindled. But legal technicalities were negotiated, and renewed viability was achieved by a new alliance: In 1952 the Watkinson moved to the Trinity College campus and became a distinguished partner of the college library community. Unlike Trinity College Library, however, the Watkinson has its own Board of Trustees, although ultimately it is answerable to the Trustees of Trinity College. Remaining true to the vision of its founder, it serves not only academic scholars, but the public as well. In 1979, the Watkinson was moved to its present location in the new library addition.

Today, the Raether Library and Information Technology Center embraces in one handsome, expanded and renovated facility, the many aspects of a modern information resource. It is 80% wired for high-speed access to the Internet. There are meeting rooms, an atrium and courtyard, a café, lounges, multiple study areas, language and music labs, computer labs, and more. The Trinity College Library holds 1,000,000 printed volumes, of which 200,000 are in the Watkinson Library.

In the fall of 2007, the Watkinson facilities underwent major renovation—a makeover worthy of applause. The Taussig Reception Area and the John M. K. David Reading Room are welcoming and functional and include a display area for special exhibits, named after the Watkinson’s first librarian, James Hammond Trumbull.

Assistance is provided at the service counter, where visitors are required to register and identify their research interest. For security reasons, personal items such as a book bags, briefcases and coats are not permitted in the reading room but must be stored in nearby lockers.

The research area is equipped with generous tables and comfortable seating. Foam book cradles are in evidence and “How to Handle Rare Books” sheets are distributed on the tables, along with “Rules for Use.” Pencils only for notes. Dr Kaimowitz does not require gloves for handling rare materials, but cautions care and commonsense. The computer provides catalog access, and offers databases that supplement the reference books and scholarly journals. Ornithology journals and other reference materials are on hand for use in the room. Offices, meeting rooms, and work areas encircle the public area.

In notes accompanying a slide presentation entitled, “Thirty Years at the Watkinson Library,” Dr. Kaimowitz observes, “Because of the Watkinson’s holdings of fragile and rare materials and its amalgamation with Trinity’s special collections, the Watkinson has become a rare book and manuscript library, and it operates in the manner of other such libraries with closed stacks and tighter security. Nevertheless, because of its notable strengths in a variety of areas, it is not merely a collection of old books and manuscripts, but is a true research library where investigations can be carried out in depth.”

Renowned educator Henry Barnard, who supervised the founding of the library, chose James Hammond Trumbull as the first librarian of the Watkinson Library. From 1863 until his retirement in 1891, Trumbull’s scholarship was reflected in the enduring range and quality of the collection. When Trumbull died in 1897, Samuel Clemens wrote of him, “He was probably the richest man in America in the matter of knowledge ... It seems a great pity that this vast property is now lost to the world – that it could not have been left to some college.” Today Trinity College is surely counting its blessings!

Trumbull was a noted bibliographer of Americana and the editor of the sale catalogs of the Brinley Collection of Americana. His knowledge of American Indian languages was outstanding, and he wrote the only dictionary of the first Bible printed in the Western Hemisphere, the Eliot Indian Bible, which was written in the Massachusett dialect of Algonquian. The Watkinson owns a 1685 copy published by Samuel Green.

Excellence is a magnet for excellence, and over time the Watkinson Library has amassed an embarrassment of riches. Its superb primary resources and supporting secondary references comprise a diverse array of important holdings. American 19th century social and cultural history has become the library’s single strongest subject area. Other significant collecting areas, to mention just a few, include the history of the book and book illustration (there are 200 15th century books (incunabula) and more than a 1,000 16th century books); major private press editions; children’s literature, ABC books, and school textbooks; American music; early photographic glass plates; first editions of 19th and 20thcentury British and American literature; botany; voyages and travel; British history, “especially the 18th through the early 20th century, including local history and genealogy”; slavery and abolition; natural history, and the list goes on and on with undiminished luster.

But among all the offerings, the Ornithology Collection, donated with a generous endowment by Ostrom and Alice Talcott Enders and regarded as one of the finest in the country, has emerged as the jewel in the crown. The endowment has fostered its significant development and growth since its arrival at Trinity. And the extraordinary quality of acquisitions is a tribute to the artistic sensitivity and scholarly expertise of Ostrom Enders, his librarians, and Dr. Kaimowitz.

There are over 7,000 volumes in the collection; the ornithological illustrations alone are a feast for the eye. Both historic and current books are collected, current subscriptions to important ornithological journals are maintained and invaluable backruns of rare journals are among the holdings. Databases are available to support current research.

Prior to earning his MLS from Columbia University in 1976, Dr. Kaimowitz had earned a PhD in the Classics, and Johns Hopkins University Press has just published his translation of The Odes of Horace. Dr. Kaimowitz’s stewardship has been bold and progressive; he and James Hammond Trumbull would have enjoyed each other’s company. What Trumbull launched with such finesse, Dr. Jeffrey Kaimowitz has continued with cultivated discernment.

Karen Stevens has worked in several Connecticut libraries and has served as a trustee on her local library board. She lectures on aspects of vanishing Americana, and has a special interest in the local histories, legends, and tales associated with Connecticut libraries. She lives in Scotland and can be reached at librlady@gmail.com. All images courtesy of the Watkinson Library, Trinity College, Hartford, CT.

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