Eclectic, Educational—and Economical

Special Collections director's work supports teaching, scholarship.

From his perch in Canaday Library, Eric Pumroy, the Seymour Adelman Director of Special Collections, oversees Bryn Mawr’s archives and its extensive collections of rare books and manuscripts, artworks, and artifacts—all with an eye to supporting teaching and research.

Bulletin: What’s your favorite thing in the collection?

Eric Pumroy: Oh, boy, it so much depends on what I’ve been working on.

But something I pull out on a pretty regular basis for new student tours is an illustrated history of the world that was published in 1493. There’s a world map right at the beginning, essentially the world as it was known in Medieval Europe just as Columbus is sailing back from America and just as the Portuguese are coming back from India. So it’s the last vision of the world as Medieval Europe knew it. From that point forward, maps are going to look different.

The paper’s wonderfully flexible so students can flip through it. And it pulls them into looking at the world of early modern Europe. You get a sense of how people dressed, how people lived, and what people thought. But it was published in Nuremburg, so all the people look like 15th-century Germans—and that includes Noah, the Roman Emperors, and so on. 

But it’s at the point where the Renaissance humanism is penetrating into northern Europe, and so the person writing the book is trying to integrate the classical stories with the biblical stories. So things weave in and out with saints being martyred and along with Seneca being forced to commit suicide—as though he’s the same sort of figure. 

It’s a showstopper of a book. It is even in color.

Bulletin: You came to Bryn Mawr from the Balch Institute of Ethnic Studies, whose collection was laser-focused on turn-of-the-century migration to the U.S. But at Bryn Mawr, the holdings often reflect the disparate interests of alumnae. Tell me about the collections. What are the strengths? 

Pumroy: It’s a very eclectic collection, but one of the things we’re best known for is an incredible collection of 15th-century printed books called incunabula, which means “from the cradle period” of printing. We have a bigger collection than Penn, Princeton, or just about anybody in the country—all because Phyllis Goodhart Gordan ’35 was interested in Renaissance humanism. 

As she tells the story, she wanted copies of texts that were in the New York Public Library. In those days before photocopiers, the only way to copy a book was to photograph every page. Her father, who made a substantial amount of money on Wall Street (and funded Goodhart Hall), looked at the dollars and cents and decided that he could buy the originals for nearly the same price, and they’ll increase in value, whereas the photographic copies wouldn’t be worth anything.

So he got hooked and over the last 15 years of his life bought an enormous number of these early printed books as well as some medieval manuscripts, and those wound up coming here.  

And then there was Ethelinda Schaefer Castle [Class of 1908], who came from a Hawaiian planter family and was interested in illustrated books. So we have a big collection of botanical and bird books, the oldest of which are from the 15th century, and these show the development of botanical illustration and botany as a science

These go into the 19th century and early 20th century, when you see the effect of colonialism on the ways people are thinking about plants they’re bringing back to England and the U.S.

Let’s see, Louise Dillingham [Class of 1916] became very interested in the history of the Spanish in the Americas and built a big collection of books on Spanish America.  

Helen Chapin [Class of 1915], who went to China, Japan, and Korea in the '20s, was one of the few Americans who knew anything about Korean art. After the war, she wound up in Korea as one of the Monuments People, surveying key Korean temples. At the same time, she was collecting Korean and Chinese books, scrolls, and other things. And those ended up coming to us as well.

And then a few years ago we got this call from England that Ellery Yale Wood ’52, who was a serious children’s book collector, was interested in finding a place for her books and Bryn Mawr was where she wanted them to go. But would anyone be interested? So we talked with English Professors Kate Thomas and Bethany Schneider and they said that they and their students would love it.  

And it is a great collection—in a number of ways. She had children’s books from when they were getting going in the late 18th, beginning of the 19th century, these little tiny sorts of chap books, maybe eight pages. It’s when Old Mother Hubbard and the like first began to be written with illustrations.

She was interested in books written for young women readers and had big collections of people who aren’t read much now—Mrs. Molesworth—and some people who are read, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, who has survived with The Little Princess and Secret Garden

And she was interested in folk tales and fairy tales and the fantasy literature that develops out of that. So C.S. Lewis and even Harry Potter and Philip Pullman’s books are part of the collection as well. So it’s a really nice kind of broad range of collection and it was worthwhile.

Once we got the books, Kate and Bethany realized that there was an opportunity to build a program around them. So now there’s a new faculty member coming next fall with a speciality in children’s and young adult literature.

Bulletin: Does most of the accessioning come through gifts, or is there a buying program?

Pumroy: There is a budget for buying that came from a Philadelphia collector named Seymour Adelman. A previous library director, James Tanis, recruited him to visit in the 1970s. Back then, Canaday was fairly new, had lots of space, including space for Adelman to have as an office and for parts of his collection. 

Adelman was interested in a wide range of things, and especially Thomas Eakins and British literature—a lot of Keats and Shelley and A.E. Housman. He also collected the papers of early 20th-century British literary figures, including Housman; his brother, Lawrence Housman, who was a theater producer; and Ralph Hodgson, who in his time was ranked with T.S. Eliot and others. So those collections were brought here. And when he died, he left an endowment for buying books and photographs and prints. 

Bulletin: What strategies do you have around accessioning? Do they focus on supporting teaching?

Pumroy: The space is filled. So we can’t think about the aggressive acquisitions I was doing with the Balch Institute, where we were going out collecting the records of ethnic organizations—we don’t have enough space for large collections like that. So when we are offered collections, it something we really have to think about carefully.

For purchasing, we build out collections that we use for teaching. So, for example, Kalala Ngalamulume teaches courses on the history of African cities. We had a decent core collection on the British and French in Africa when he started, and we have built that up over time. Now, there are lots and lots of colonial guides and directories from throughout Africa from the first half of the 20th century, and these get used on a regular basis by students in his courses.

Every few years we buy a medieval manuscript because those get used in art classes and medieval history classes. I will be doing a class this fall with Catherine Conybeare on the transmission of classical texts from the ancient world to the early modern world and the age of print. Having manuscripts that match up with early printed books gives the students a chance to look closely at how a text changes from one medium to another.

Bulletin: Bryn Mawr participates in several consortia—the Tri-Co with Haverford and Swarthmore, the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections. More recently, we’ve been involved with the College Women Project with the other Seven Sisters schools. How did that come about? 

Pumroy: We never really had any meaningful contact with the special collections departments of the other Sisters until we set up the Greenfield Digital Center on the History of Women’s Education in 2011. The first director, Jennifer Redmond, was working on an exhibition on entrance exams and got in touch with Barnard and a couple of other places to get copies of their early exams. In having that conversation, everybody said we really ought to do more.

In 2014, we got a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to figure out exactly how this would work—and it worked pretty well. Where we really had an opportunity was to look at the experiences of college students because we all had letters and diaries and scrapbooks from students when they were at college and away from home. 

These are interesting documents for showing what life was like on the campuses, but also for showing what the women wanted to do, what kinds of problems they were running into as they thought about career opportunities, marriage versus teaching, the relationship with their parents, politics, the suffrage movement, World War I, the influenza epidemic. 

These documents had never been looked at except on a local level. We had used them in a few classes on the history of Bryn Mawr.

But what if we pulled all of these writings together from across the Seven Sisters colleges? Now we have a really rich source documenting the experiences of these first generations of women who got to go to college and were thinking about long-term careers.

We received a much bigger grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2016 to expand the project by digitizing large numbers of student letters and diaries and scrapbooks. For most of the last year we have focused on digitization, and now that this work is mostly done we will be publicizing the site much more. Last summer, I did a presentation at the Women’s History in the Digital World conference in Ireland, and I’ll be presenting at a conference in London this summer on College Educated Women and the Suffrage Movement. 

Of course, alumnae are potential users. It will be interesting in hearing exactly how and what they would find useful, what they’re interested in.