William & Mary’s Swem Library Celebrates 50th Anniversary

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Swem Library at the College of William & Mary
Swem Library at the College of William & Mary

Long nights, tables overflowing with textbooks and frenzied students vying to grab an open seat during exam weeks are the images that William & Mary’s Earl Gregg Swem Library most readily conjures to mind, but faculty and staff are hopeful the community will take a step back to appreciate the long and unique history of this campus hot spot during its 50th anniversary.

Dedicated on Charter Day 1966 – Feb. 12 – Swem’s history actually extends back several centuries to when the College first began to amass a collection of books for its original library, which was founded in the late 1690s and housed in the Wren Building.

“By the end of the Revolutionary War, the nearly 3,000 books in the college library made it the second largest of its kind in North America, after Harvard,” University Archivist Kim Sims said.

The library remained in the Wren Building until the early 1900s, when famed philanthropist Andrew Carnegie pledged $20,000 for the construction of a new facility to house the ever-expanding collection.

The new building, which then was simply called The Library but is now known as Tucker Hall, was the site of the library for nearly half a century. Mounting concerns about the inadequacy of the site throughout the 1950s led to the decision to break ground for what would become Swem Library during Homecoming 1963, according to a recent news release from the college.

The current library officially opened its doors less than three years later and was named for Earl Greg Swem, the college librarian from 1920 to 1944 who died a year before the new library opened.

“I love that our library is named after a librarian who was instrumental in building the foundation of the amazing collections we have today,” said Dean of University Libraries Carrie Cooper. “It’s serendipitous that the things Earl Gregg Swem was passionate about during his tenure as university librarian – building library collections, improving access to those collections and increasing library instruction – are the same things we continue to focus on today.”

The original building has been drastically expanded and renovated in the five decades since its opening, but all the while it has “remained central to the academic and social experience on campus,” according to the release.

The 2003 renovation, which saw the addition of a 100,000-square-foot wing and an overhaul of the existing space, brought the library fully up-to-date and allowed for a considerable expansion of the services offered there.

Today, Swem boasts seven branch and affiliated libraries throughout the campus, which collectively house extensive print, electronic and special collections as well as a full complement of collaborative work spaces, high-tech classrooms, multi-media production studios and quiet study areas.

These additions have contributed to visits to the library more than doubling over the last decade; in 2015 alone, users visited Swem more than 800,000 times, according to the release.

“Our priorities are built around a commitment to build strong collections so research and intellectual curiosity will flourish, and to develop new information services to help our community thrive,” Cooper said.

With those priorities in focus, Swem has received national attention as one of the best university libraries in the country. The Princeton Review, a respected and oft-cited source for the comparison of various different aspects of university life, ranked Swem as the best academic library in the state and among the top 20 in the nation in 2015.

“I’m proud that Swem Library enjoys a national reputation,” Cooper said. “Our students see us as an important component to their success. Our facility, collections and librarians and staff all contribute to positive student perceptions of the library.”

As the library observes its 50th anniversary, faculty and staff are also looking toward what the future might hold. Student assistantships, the continued digitization of its collections and continued investment in library spaces are all initiatives that library visitors can expect to see highlighted going forward, according to the release.

“Students and faculty need an inspiring place to connect – with peers, with world-class resources and with their own thoughts,” said Lisa Nickel, associate dean of research and public services.