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Joseph C. Rowell

University Librarian, 1874–1919; University Archivist, 1919–1938

Joseph C. Rowell, 1919

Joseph C. Rowell, 1919.

On September 22, 1870, Joseph Cummings Rowell entered the freshman class of the University of California thus beginning a relationship that would last more than 68 years. From the moment he entered as a freshman, until his death in November 1938, the life of Joseph Rowell and the life of the University were intertwined. Under Rowell's care, the library grew from a small, 13,000-volume library to its current place among the foremost libraries of the United States.

In July of 1874, Rowell graduated with 22 others—the second graduating class in the history of the University and the first to have received instruction on the Berkeley campus. At graduation Rowell was appointed Recorder of the Faculties, Secretary to President Gilman, and Lecturer in English. But the following year, he received the entirely unsolicited and unexpected appointment of University Librarian.

Joseph C. Rowell, 1874

Joseph C. Rowell, 1874.

On his first day of work as University Librarian, Rowell entered the library located on South Hall's first floor into a room that was 36 by 50 feet, well lighted, cheerful and airy. The room contained black-walnut bookcases installed to form alcoves, five bronze busts of ancient nobles surrounding the two reading tables, thirty chairs, and the desk for the librarian.

For the next forty-four years Joseph C. Rowell served as the University Librarian. He saw the collections grow more than thirty times larger that it had been when the library had begun in the little room in South Hall. The Library had moved twice during those years, first to the Bacon Library Building, in 1881, and then to the Doe Library Building, in 1911. But ever modest Rowell stated that his career was "just a succession of years devoted to the upbuilding of the library."

Joseph C. Rowell, 1874

Joseph C. Rowell, 1936.

On June 30, 1919, the day following his 66th birthday, Rowell voluntarily resigned, and Harold L. Leupp, who had served as the Associate Librarian for seven years, became University Librarian. But Rowell's connection with the library did not end then. For nearly twenty more years he served as University Archivist; tending to the acquisition and arrangement of materials relating to the history of the University and to the activities of its faculty, alumni, and undergraduates.

"Son of this University's youth; her patient and faithful servant during two generations; transformer of a college library into a great university collection; exemplar of selfless devotion to the cause of higher education in California; a modest man who speaks ill of no one."

President Robert Gordon Sproul, Charter Day, March 23, 1935,
when the University bestowed on Rowell the degree of Doctor of Laws.


"Ten days of the summer vacation of 1881 were given over to moving the Library from the old location in South Hall to the rooms set apart for it in Bacon Hall. The librarian's desk was situated in the center of the room, complete supervision of the alcoves thus being secured…The books were so arranged that standing at the librarian's desk, and facing the alcoves, the scientific books are to be found on the right hand, those books partly scientific and partly literary in nature are found just behind the librarian's chair; the works of pure literature a little further to the left, and the classics still further to the left. The encyclopedias and other reference works are located near the north door."

Joseph Rowell at desk

The Rotunda of Bacon Library, c. 1890. Joseph Rowell at desk at far left. Rowell's flat-topped desk was under the dome. His author catalog was in a card cabinet on one corner of the desk, and his index on the other. He served as the loan and reference desk librarian, as well as the ordering and cataloging departments. He mixed his own paste and mounted bookplates and date slips, and he affixed the call numbers to each volume. In a large ledger book, he entered new volumes as they came in.



New to librarianship, Rowell toured other libraries seeking advice. He described his experience with characteristic enthusiasm and aplomb.

"An ignorant young man from western wilds, armed with not a single letter of introduction, but only a card bearing his own name and title, barged into the sanctums of librarians of high and low degree, was welcomed with cordiality everywhere, and was given every possible facility and help in his investigations. How proud I am to be admitted to the ranks of a profession officered by such scholars and—gentlemen! Freely have I received; freely must I give."

-- Joseph C. Rowell, The Beginnings of a Great Library: Reminiscences


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