“To Promote in the Study of the Development of Civilization in England and America”: The Third Annual Report of the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, 1929-1930, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the best-known cultural institutions in greater Los Angeles, the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens was established in 1919 by real estate and transportation tycoon Henry E. Huntington and his second wife (and widow of his late uncle Collis) Arabella to make their San Marino estate into an institution “to promote the public welfare.” After Henry’s death in May 1927 (Arabella predeceased him by about three years), work was undertaken to open the library and the art gallery (this latter located in the couple’s opulent mansion).

At the end of January 1928, the institution, including access to some of the lushly landscaped grounds, was opened to the public and visiting hours established Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. As was noted in a prior post here, the west end of the library building, constructed in 1920, and the residence were remodeled, with the former styled as the “Arabella D. Huntington Memorial” and divided into the French and Italian Renaissance rooms to showcase the art and other artifacts collected by her.

Meanwhile, a cadre of researchers with the proper bona fides, and specifically described as those who were to considered “competent,” constituted a caste of Visiting Scholars using the extensive library and manuscripts collections that were Henry’s passion and obsession long before Arabella brought her art collection to the marriage and diversified and enlarged the range of what the public would enjoy when visiting the institution.

This post takes a look at the third annual report, covering the fiscal year of 1 July 1929 to 30 June 1930, of what was denoted as the “Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery,” with the document issued in partnership with Harvard University Press as part of the Huntington Library Publications series.

One of the front matter pages lists the board of trustees, including the prominent Los Angeles banker, attorney and political adviser Henry M. Robinson as president; astronomer George Ellery Hale as vice-president; and Arabella’s son Archer; Robert A. Millikan, physicist and winner of the Nobel Prize as well as founding president of CalTech (though his support for eugenics led to the recent removal of his name from campus buildings); and astronomer Henry Smith Pritchett as the others.

As for the staff, the director of research was Max Farrand, historian of the United States after its establishment; the librarian was Leslie E. Bliss, who began working for Huntington in 1915 and continued in his role until his retirement forty-three years later; the rare books curator was Robert O. Schad, who later wrote a biography of Huntington and was in charge of public exhibitions and admissions; and the curator of the art collections was Maurice Block, who was in the position for two decades until the late 1940s.

The report began with the observations that

Increased service to the public, and especially to the advanced scholars for whom the collections are peculiarly useful, is again the outstanding feature of the past year at the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery. The use of the library by students is three or four times as great as it was two years ago, and has necessitated enlarged accommodations, both in rooms and equipment, as well as additions to the staff . . . The number of visitors admitted to the exhibitions and to the grounds has not increased, for the limit of capacity had already been reached, at least in the crowded seasons of midsummer and midwinter . . .

The statement that “advanced scholars” were considered “the public” is certainly an interesting one, given that access to the library is not public, but, rather, is determined on an application basis with a demonstrated pedigree and purpose. The response of the general visitor to the institution was stated as one of “welcomed expressions of approval.”

With respect to researchers, it was noted that the two earlier reports “laid stress upon rarity and quality as being the most important features of the material” in the library’s holdings, while the stewardship of the collection was a preeminent concern of “the Founder” and this was enhanced by “the provision in the deeds of trust for their use.”

The trust indentures established by Henry and Arabella emphasized the “advancement of learning, the arts and sciences, and to promote the public welfare” through a “free public research library, art gallery, museum and botanical garden,” though the former was “for reference and research only.” Notably, the desire that the institution remain free lasted until 1996 when admission fees were instituted.

Also stressed was that the library “differs from other institutional libraries” in that the trust stipulated that it was to be “a research institution in the humanities, comparable to some of the great research institutions in the sciences,” but also that it was in the intention for it “to provide the means for encouraging an carrying on the above mentioned work within the State of California.” Yet, of the ten visiting scholars, only a few were in the Golden State, with others coming from universities in Illinois, Maryland, Michigan and Massachusetts, as well as one from London.

Once more it was averred that “the Trustees recognize the obligation of permitting the public to share in the privileges of this great gift” from the Huntingtons, including “admitting the public to the grounds and exhibitions,” but it was also clearly stated that the governors of the institution “are especially concerned with the encouragement of research activities” through the scholars, “who will contribute to the program of research which the Huntington Library itself is to promote in the study of the development of civilization in England and America.” This narrowed and limited scope is a significant contrast in so many ways with what takes place in research activities at the Huntington now, even as the restrictions in access to “competent” scholars remains in place.

The Visiting Scholars included those working with the history of science, cartography, English literature, British history, political science and medicine, while the University of Michigan’s librarian was “to advise with the officers” at the Huntington “upon future development policies.” A few did not have their work described, this having been mentioned in the prior year’s report. For social and cultural historians, it may be of interest that Frederick Jackson Turner, emeritus professor from Harvard, was returning for another year—Turner is best known for having declared, nearly three decades before, that the American frontier was closed.

After noting that scholars were expected to have results of their research published, whether independently or through the Huntington, it was also noted that the Trustees recently announced the Huntington Library Publications series. It began in fall 1929 with the issuing of a facsimile and explanation of a 1648 publication on the laws of Colonial Massachusetts, though there were problems in getting the replica of the 1603 quarto of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet , so the second volume was delayed, though it and a third number were since published.

Another recent introduction was the establishment of the Library’s Bulletin, the first issue of which was being readied for publication. A key article was a brief biography of Henry Huntington, focusing on “his extraordinary method of collecting, with the effects of that method upon the completed collections” along with lists and summaries of the entire libraries (this was his innovation, rather than acquiring individual items or lots through auctions) he purchased.

It is interesting to note that the essay was full of new material to the Library staff and it was added,

Mr. Huntington acquired his collections so rapidly and the members of the staff were so far in arears in cataloguing them that no attempt was ever made to keep definite data regarding the acquisitions, not even as to the number of collections added.

Moreover, it was commented that, once this material was put together for the Bulletin, “one’s bewilderment is increased by the variety as well as by the wealth of the material that is described” while it was also observed that “the Library is essentially that of a collector and not of a student.”

Regarding that wealth contained at San Marino, it was proudly noted that, not only was “the Shakespeare collection . . . generally recognized as one of the greatest in the world,” but that the Library possessed up to 95% of the first editions of all published British plays. Valuable as this was, it was added that a researcher also required “subsequent editions and later critical studies, in order to know the use that has already been made of the material and so to avoid duplication of work.”

Given the rarity of so many of the items in the collection, it was a policy of the institution that reproduction of unique objects was generally to be granted if “the finished production be submitted for possible inclusion in its own series of publications.” If it elected not to do this, independent published uses were granted “provided the completed work is judged by competent scholars,” selected by the Library, who found such works to be “of such a character and quality” that the published product “will be for the ‘advancement of learning.'”

The assertion was that there was such a “flood of printed matter pouring from the presses,” that the Trustees found it advisable “to emphasize quality rather than to encourage quantity of production.” This was because the members of the body “feel the responsibility of insisting” that anything coming from the Library’s collection “shall be of the same high quality as the collections themselves.”

Put another way, the high bar set by the Huntington for “competent” scholars was that “the ultimate question” was “whether the work is to be done as definitively as possible, or in a way that points toward the final clearing up of the subject, at least to the extent of present-day knowledge.” The line of argument continued that “institutions of learning are not free from the common failing of being influenced by quantity of production,” while scholars still somewhat wet behind the ears were being urged to “publish or perish” as an “effect upon their advancement.”

It was claimed that the Huntington collection “contains a vast amount of material that lends itself to this form of exploitation,” such as through editing texts or manuscripts that had not been published. To show its discernment and protection of the Library’s vested interests, an example was given of how a student asked to edit and publish a few examples from a large holding, but “after consultation with the best scholars in the subject and period,” the institution rejected the request because it cold not “allow the ream to be skimmed in that way.” Instead, the scholar was told approval was conditional on editing the entirety of the all the material at hand and that would be definitive.

It was added that Trustees sometimes “yielded their prior rights and allowed independent publication of material in the Library” because they found that this “would be to the greater advantage of scholarship” than if the Huntington published the work. When “an organization of repute or an editor of standing” sought to issue a complete edition of the work by a given author and if the material from the Huntington was a small contribution, then such permission was readily made. If, however, the institution provided most of the material, “the Library requests the opportunity of considering for itself the publication of the completed work.”

An illustration still in the decision stage concerned a major writer’s works and the fact that the Huntington shared with a couple of other institutions the lion’s share of the material, so, “until the work is in final form it will remain uncertain whether the Huntington Library material is the more important part, and that fact will probably determine the place of publication.” Generally, the idea was that the institution would publish material from its holdings or works that were based on what was held there.

To date, it was reported that there were “between twenty and thirty different pieces of research being carried on under the direct supervision of the Huntington Library and as a part of its research program,” while about that number consisted of independent research that was assisted by material found in the institution’s holdings. It was added that “these accomplishments in research would not have been possible without the cordial coöperation of the various departments” at the Huntington.

We’ll return tomorrow with the second and final part of this post on this illuminating report of a prominent regional institution in its early stages of operation, so check back with us then.

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