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From the Archives: Denison Library, Timeless After 90 Years

By Jennifer Martinez Wormser ’95
Director and Sally Preston Swan Librarian for the Ella Strong Denison Library

 

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Ella Strong Denison Library at Scripps College, dedicated on February 13, 1931. The third building constructed at the then-new women’s college, it was designed by Gordon Kaufmann (1888–1949), a Los Angeles–based architect who developed the original campus plan. Yet it was Ella Strong Denison, the library’s namesake and donor, who had the vision for a stained-glass window in the cruciform-shaped building that would inspire generations of students.

The Denison Library houses manuscripts, artifacts, and art.

The library’s distinctive Gutenberg Window, designed by stained-glass artist Nicola D’Ascenzo of Philadelphia, depicts the history of the book, celebrating the conveyance of knowledge by way of its brilliant colors and thoughtful arrangement. In the later 1930s, the north transept—today known as the Rare Book Room—was added, and Mrs. Denison commissioned D’Ascenzo Studios to make another 23 stained-glass windows highlighting the colophonic designs of early printers. In 1966, an addition was built to accommodate the library’s growing collections; the Scripps College Board of Trustees named it the Dorothy Drake Wing in honor of the library director whose 38 years of service to the College began in 1938. Denison Library was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

 

Since its opening, Denison Library has welcomed students with a quiet elegance in which books, ideas, and learning come together, and its focus on rare and primary source materials invites opportunities for hands-on engagement with items ranging from early cuneiform tablets to illuminated medieval manuscripts to books, pamphlets, archival items, and photographs. Denison Library has distinguished itself with its collections focused on works by women and the study of women and gender; its holdings pertaining to the history of the book and fine printing, including artists’ books; and its one-of-a kind documentary record of Scripps College through its institutional archives and the papers of founder Ellen Browning Scripps (1836–1932).

 

Denison Library has been witness to pivotal moments and milestones in Scripps history: the first classes of students on campus, who donated the cost of their desserts to pay for grass on the lawns and to help feed the hungry during the Depression; the College’s shift in curricula during World War II to prepare its students for a changing set of post-college workplace expectations; the racial and socio-economic diversification of the student body; the addition of new academic programs, including area studies, art conservation, environmental analysis, and data science; student advocacy and protests; the development of the internet, forever changing the dynamics and methods of information seeking; and the College’s unprecedented yearlong closure due to the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic. Over the course of nine decades, Denison Library has retained its enduring role as the intellectual and aesthetic heart of the Scripps College campus.

A stained-glass window in the Rare Book room of Denison Library. This window has the name and date “Nicolaus Waldt 1587” in the lower left corner.

Yet Denison Library has not been a passive fixture during these years. Library staff conscientiously acquired books, manuscripts, and archival materials designed to support and inspire scholarly inquiry and the College’s ever-evolving humanities-based curriculum. Exhibitions, many of them curated by students, created opportunities to share gems from the collections under thematic constructs. The work of cataloging and describing materials to provide intellectual access and discoverability moved from being typewriter based to computer based and from the card catalog to an online database, though the need for accurate information and evolving descriptive standards has remained a priority. Technological advances have presented opportunities to digitize rare and historic materials and share them with a worldwide audience through the library website. And, continuing to keep with the times, the library has adapted its Slocum Award for Student Libraries, which has run since 1936, to a Zoom-based judging and interview format during the two most recent spring semesters. With the campus closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, a new initiative to expand the Scripps College Archives to capture the stories of our students, faculty, staff, and alumnae during this unique time will provide future generations with a better understanding of the dramatic changes at the College during this pandemic year of physical separation and technological innovation.

With its inviting alcoves and architectural grandeur, Denison Library has always been a place to gather: where classes meet to view and discuss rare books, where students study together late into the evening, where poetry readings are held, where the solitary student reviews their notes before an exam, and where graduates adjust their caps one last time before striding outdoors toward Elm Tree Lawn on Commencement Day. It is our community’s shared touchstone, where the hearts of students, faculty, staff, alumnae, and friends connect—a place devoted to the learning, developing, and sharing of new ideas.