Collegiate instructional methods and curricula bore little resemblance to those of today. The Knox catalogs for most of the 19th century describe inflexible courses of study and extensive reading lists associated with those courses. Electives were unknown. The intellectual initiative and independent research valued today--and which modern college libraries make it their purpose to foster--were barely tolerated, much less emphasized. Nineteenth century students, then, might well have succeeded academically with only a few textbooks and standard classical texts.
Still, the case for a library at a new western school like Knox was made quite passionately in 1848 by Yale professor Noah Porter in A Plea for Libraries, a pamphlet published and distributed by the Society for the Promotion of Collegiate and Theological Education at the West, one of Knox’s earliest benefactors. Porter makes two arguments for books and libraries that sound remarkably modern in their emphasis on the importance of developing permanently useful research skills early in life and on the interdisciplinary nature of research: first, that "education in its preliminary stages, and as late even as the meridian of life, is the training of the powers to use books wisely and effectually, rather than a transfer of so much knowledge from so many books;" second, that "the higher are the qualifications, and the wider the attainments of the scholar, the more numerous are the circles of science to which he is introduced, and the greater the library which he must have at his command."
Libraries in the West--that is, in the Midwest--were especially important, Porter believed. Without them, important decisions about the direction of this new land would be uninformed ones: "Libraries are especially needed in the institutions of a new country," he wrote, "and in an unformed condition of society." An accompanying statistical report from Theron Baldwin, secretary of the Society, describes Knox as having a library of two thousand volumes, but is more memorable today for Baldwin’s description of a college library as "that grand appliance for the work of instruction."
The location of Knox’s library at this time is a mystery--one of the large rooms at the north end of either the East or West Bricks probably, though there’s no hard evidence of that. By the early 1860s, the volume count had increased to over 3000. The college catalogs of this time also provide the first evidence of the two other major library collections on the Knox campus in the 19th century--those of the Adelphi and Gnothautii literary societies.