UND Libraries Through the Eyes of Louis Geiger: Part 1 (1883-1908)

Louis Geiger was a member of the UND History Department in the 1950s and 1960s and was a central figure in the creation of the Department of Special Collections at the University of North Dakota. For the seventy-fifth anniversary of UND, Geiger wrote The University of the Northern Plains which remains an important examination of the University’s history from 1883-1958. This installment reflects Geiger’s interpretation of the library facilities at UND through seventy years. The majority of content recited here is taken from Geiger’s The University of the Northern Plains.

Eighty years before the Chester Fritz Library opened, The University of North Dakota began collecting books under President William Blackburn (1884-1885). The need for a library was not high on the University’s priority list, mainly because the institution was struggling to remain open in an isolated location that produced few interested or qualified students. Additionally, UND struggled to find a balance between a practical education needed in a farming community, and an intellectual education that was extremely popular during this time period; intellectual education including  the instruction of Latin and Greek. In the University’s first years, the demand for practical education won. This is exemplified by the absence of funds appropriated for buying books or constructing a library. As Geiger explains “the absence of a library, for which no funds at all had been appropriated, was felt less keenly than it would have been at a later date, for instruction in the non-scientific courses was mostly by drill and recitation from textbooks.” (40)

Blackburn tried to fix this deficiency by personally donating over two hundred volumes, magazines, and pamphlets, and by asking the public for donations. One significant donor was W.R. Bierly – the Secretary of the Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce. However, these donations were ignored and “lay neglected in a corner throughout the term (1884) because there was no facility to handle to books and no one with the time or inclination to make them available for use.” Instead, focus was aimed at creating a museum comprised of animal bones, used for natural history lectures. In the summer of 1885, the first purchases were made, and shelving and lending arrangements were developed. The following legislature (1885) finally appropriated $1,000 dollars for the creation of a reading room. By 1887, the book collection numbered a thousand volumes.

The historical interpretation that Geiger conveys is that the need for library facilities and books were under emphasized and neglected until 1887 “When the legislature appropriated $2,000 dollars” despite the faculty’s recommendation for $5,000. Again, the need for library facilities was downplayed. After receiving the $2,000, of which $1,900 was spent on purchasing books and $100 on shelving, the reading room “should remain open only a half hour, from one to one thirty in the afternoon, five days a week. No books could be taken from the reading room except on the weekends, when borrowers were limited to one book each.” (57)

By 1892 the collections had expanded to 2,300 volumes, and when Professor Webster Merrifield became a librarian in 1889 the reading room remained open from eight to five daily, and students were allowed to take out books without the requirement of a note from a professor. Most of the works in the reading room are described by Geiger as “standard works” in History and English – the “most useful departments” (70)

From 1891-1899 the library received only $3,000 dollars- all in 1891- and by 1893, there were 5,000 volumes. However from 1893-1899 the collection only increased by 500 volumes. This dramatic decrease in the growth of library collections must be viewed in a national context. Eighteen ninety three is significant because of the Panic of 1893, which was a serious economic depression across the United States, caused by, among other things, railroad overbuilding and a series of bank failures. This Panic was considered the worst depression that the U.S. had ever experienced. With very little funds available for anything, it is understandable why the University did not see library expansion as an important undertaking.

The next major event in library history at UND, came in 1908 when a large sum of money was donated by Andrew Carnegie. This ends the first installment of UND Libraries Through the Eyes of Geiger. The next installment will begin with Andrew Carnegie’s donation, and the building of UND’s first library building – which is still standing on campus today.

Check out the Fritz at 50 celebration at http://library.und.edu/fritz-at-50/

Our Twitter feed http://twitter.com/#!/Fritzat50

And our Omeka page http://fritzat50.omeka.net/


To read Louis Geiger’s The History of the Northern Plains check your local library, Amazon, or Google Books.


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