James Ford Bell Library. The celebratory party was held on Wednesday evening featuring a short program, good food, and the opening of an exhibit to mark the event. The exhibit, “Bound Fragments of Time: 60 Years of Collecting at the James Ford Bell Library” will run until February 1, 2014 in the T. R. Anderson Gallery on the fourth floor of Wilson Library, West Bank Campus, University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.
On October 30, 1953 Bell formally gave his collection to the University. In an address given on that day he noted: “What I have collected has been carefully chosen and is, I think, of a quality and an extent to form at least the nucleus of a library which…may help to make the generations of students that will pass through the University of Minnesota good trustees for posterity of the boldness, confidence, vision, and wisdom which these books contain as gifts from the past.” The establishment of the Bell Library in 1953 and the Kerlan Collection of Children’s Literature in 1949 marked, in essence, the beginning of what would become an amazing assemblage of collections now under the rubric of archives and special collections. Other collections—the Social Welfare History Archives (1964) and the Immigration History Research Center (1965)—added valuable research materials for scholars and students.
In an historical sketch I wrote some time ago for an exhibit at the Weisman Art Museum, more of the story becomes apparent.
In the beginning days of the library, curiosities and rarities were part of the domain of the University Librarian. It was the Librarian who made book-buying trips to England and the Continent, or who arranged to meet with dealers and purchase items in the fields of history or literature that might both strengthen the curriculum and add to the prestige of the library….In the mid-1920s Walter Library was built and its rarities found a new home—a small safe and a locked, fireproof vault within the library…. At about this same time, Minneapolis Journal publisher and bibliophile Hershel Victor Jones donated his collection of seventeenth-century newspapers to the library. During a tour of the new library, Jones asked to see his gift, was led to this small sanctuary, and was comforted by the security and respect shown his collection. That distinctive collection of Stuart tracts and newspapers was expanded through the efforts of James Thayer Gerould and scholar/dean
History and literature—English and American—continued as subject strengths in the collection building that laid the foundations for Special Collections and Rare Books. As the collections in Walter grew, the outlines of a future department began to take shape. Additional reading room space was secured in the Upson Room and, with the addition of another rare book collection in 1953, the James Ford Bell Library, the library devoted more attention to rare materials. But it was not until the mid-1960s when the term "special collections" began to be used in the library.
Bell was a “leading figure in the American flour milling industry and founder of General Mills, Inc.” He was born in Philadelphia 1879. At the age of nine his family moved to Minneapolis, where his father became a general manager for the Washburn Crosby Company. (The initials WCCO, now attached to our local CBS television/radio stations, find their roots in the same company.) Bell graduated from the university in 1901 with a degree in chemistry and then joined the Washburn Crosby Company. “During World War I,” so a brief biography on the Bell Associates website reads, “he was appointed chairman of the Milling Division of the U.S. Food Administration and in this capacity accompanied President Herbert Hoover on his European Hunger Relief Mission in 1918.” Bell “became president of the Washburn Crosby Company in 1925; three years later he was responsible for the founding of General Mills, a consolidation of many western and Midwestern milling companies. He became chairman of the board of directors of the company in 1932, an office he held until his retirement in 1947. Throughout his life, he was active in national and international affairs and in the growth of his community.”
The Bell Collection has grown from James Ford Bell’s original gift of around 600 volumes to a collection “of more than 30,000 items in the form of books, maps, manuscripts, pamphlets, broadsides, and assorted printed documents. It ranges in scope from invoices for rope, ships' logs, and gilt-edged trade treaties between Western and Eastern monarchs to diaries, travel narratives, and missionary accounts. The items in the collection currently date between 400 C.E. and 1825 C.E.”
I served for a year as interim curator of the Bell Collection, following the retirement of curator Carol Urness in 2001. In a way, it was the repayment of a favor: Carol served as the interim curator of Special Collections and Rare Books until I arrived in 1998. Four years later, thinking a career move might be worth considering, I was one of three finalists for the Bell curatorship. I was unsuccessful in my bid, but it was all for the best. Current curator Marguerite (Maggie) Ragnow joined the staff in 2005 and is a valued colleague. The Bell’s original curator, John (Jack) Parker, was an inspiration to me. Shortly before his death in 2006, I wrote Jack a short note of thanks, which included these words:
I say thank you because, to a large extent, I am what I am, and am doing what I am doing, as a result of you, your life, and your work. I still remember, with some awe, the feeling I had as a graduate student in the library school when I paid my first visit to the fourth floor of Wilson. I felt as if I had entered “the holy of holies.” Your care for the collection, your scholarship in support of (and through) the collection, and your welcoming presence into the collection has stayed with me to this day. I want to provide the same care, and encourage the same level of scholarship, and to be as much of a welcoming presence to the collection, as you. To paraphrase a marketing slogan from some time ago, “I want to be like Jack.”
The Bell Library—and its curators—occupy a special place in my heart. I have enjoyed knowing and working with all of them, and celebrate with those still present the anniversary of a remarkable collection.