Beyond the stacks: A distinctive collection

The John Carter Brown Library wants its extraordinary collections on the history of the colonial Americas to be accessible to the world—and more scholars at Brown.

“Speak to the past and it shall teach thee.”

Many Brown students are familiar with the chiseled inscription on the side of the John Carter Brown Library (JCB)—though far fewer know what happens inside its walls. Through digitization of the collection, increased collaborative programs, and greater outreach, the people behind the JCB are setting out to change that.

Speaking to the Past


For the past 150 years, the John Carter Brown Library has been building up its repository of rare books, manuscripts, maps, imprints, and more.

The JCB is home to one of the world's most robust repositories of the early history of the Americas. From Greenland to Patagonia,  it's “an encyclopedic collection on the history of the colonial world,” says Neil Safier ’91, the JCB’s Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian, and Associate Professor in the Department of History at Brown. “We aspire to collect every edition of every book in every language that was ever produced about the history of the Americas. We cross all language and geographical barriers.”

The JCB was originally the private library of John Carter Brown, a descendant of the family for whom Brown is named, in the mid-1800s. Building on the Brown family's tradition of book acquisition, he began collecting books about the colonial Americas, for which he had a passion. Recognizing the value of these remarkable collections, Brown's son, John Nicholas Brown, allocated funds in his will to construct a library in his father's memory and established an endowment to support its work.

“ We aspire to collect every edition of every book in every language that was ever produced about the history of the Americas. We cross all language and geographical barriers. ”

Neil Safier ’91 Associate Professor of History, Director of the John Carter Brown Library

The JCB's extraordinarily diverse collection is comprised of 50,000 rare books (printed before circa 1825), thousands of maps and manuscripts, and more than 16,000 other reference books and secondary sources. Its holdings range from the first Latin edition of Columbus’ letter of 1493—and virtually every contemporary narrative of Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English discoveries, explorations, and settlements—to indigenous language documents from throughout the hemisphere.

Diverse collections for scholarly pursuits

Erika Valdivieso chose Brown for her Ph.D. studies after seeing a mere fraction of the Library's collections and touring the JCB Reading Room. Valdivieso, a recipient of the JCB’s J.M. Stuart Fellowship for Brown graduate students, appreciates how Brown and the JCB allow her to examine a subject from several angles.

“My research is a case in point: I'm at the intersection of classics and Hispanic studies as well as history,” says Valdivieso. “That wouldn't be possible if I weren’t here.”

Valdivieso's research focuses on primary sources in Latin, Spanish, and Portuguese that reconstruct the context in which Latin was taught and then imitated in the colonial Americas. “I can trace the influence of [a] book on the people who studied it when they were younger and then grew up to use those same passages and those same definitions in their writing,” she says.

While a private institution, the JCB (which functions separately from the University Library system) has a public goal of educating different communities around the world about the early history of the Americas. That means ensuring that everyone—regardless of where they live or work, the language they speak, or their academic standing—can access the JCB's materials. The JCB has made an unusual commitment to digitize its entire collection of books, manuscripts, and maps to host on its own digital platform.

“Once an item is digitized, we want people to be able to use it, whether it is for Instagram or for a serious scholarly endeavor,” says Safier, who notes that 20 percent of holdings have thus far been digitized thanks to Library donors .

Bringing history into the light

The digitization effort is just one of many ways the Library is making its resources and knowledge more accessible. In contrast to Safier's undergraduate years, when the JCB was underutilized by the campus community (Safier himself never made it inside the building), it now actively partners with other departments and centers at Brown, so that undergraduates, graduates, research fellows, and faculty can engage with the full complement of the JCB's resources. Each year, the Library hosts some 40 to 50 scholars as research fellows who are encouraged to engage with Brown’s leading scholars in their respective fields, while undergraduates visit JCB exhibitions and use the collection for projects to support their studies in the humanities, social sciences, and even certain scientific fields.

By introducing undergraduate and graduate students to the collections, Safier says, “Future generations can also understand the importance of the JCB. Books speak of the people who created them…and of the people who read them.”