In an address to a meeting of the Friends of the Knox Library at the Cosmopolitan Club in New York in the spring of 1931, Edward Caldwell described the library at Knox prior to the opening of Seymour Library in 1928 as "a miscellaneous and haphazard collection of books, badly catalogued and arranged, in poorly lighted rooms, mostly inaccessible to the student, in unattractive surroundings, and with inadequate reading tables or none at all." As a Knox student of the 1880s, a Phi Beta Kappan, a publisher and book collector, and a Trustee of the College since 1923, Caldwell was well qualified and well placed to issue such an unflattering opinion. As we attempt in the final year of the twentieth century to absorb recent developments in digital media and networking that both promise and threaten new definitions of scholarly communication, the efforts of generations of Knox faculty and students to assemble and to organize libraries at a time when new printing technologies made books more available than ever before are worth a lingering backward glance.
The few books brought to Illinois from New York by Knox’s founders would have served as Knox’s first library. Some of these may have been made available to students in a common area. When Knox’s first building--the Seminary building which gave its name to Galesburg’s present-day Seminary Street--burned to the ground in 1843, the Trustees resolved "that an effort be immediately made to procure the means for the erection of a college edifice for the purpose of Chapel, Lecture Room, Library and Recitation Rooms." This specific mention of a library suggests a widespread recognition that a library of some kind--no matter how small--had been lost in that fire and needed to be replaced. The multiple purposes of the proposed new building reveal a common characteristic of American libraries for most of the 19th century: they were not buildings, they were collections of books. While some of the early American library societies which preceded the public libraries we know today had their own buildings, most academic libraries of the time made do with a room or two in an academic building.
Knox College’s original name--Knox Manual Labor College--can still be found stamped on the title pages of about 400 books housed today in Seymour Library and in the Alumni Room in Old Main. Since the College discontinued using the "manual labor" element of its name in 1846 and officially dropped it in 1857, this collection is the first which can be firmly placed in a College building at a specific time.