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Milestones of the Syracuse University Libraries

From Humble to World Class: The von Ranke Library Purchase

In 1875, the new University Librarian Charles W. Bennett, professor of history and logic at Syracuse University since 1871, went on a book-hunting trip to Europe thanks to a donation of $5,000 by his friend, University trustee and former president of Genesee College John M. Reid. He returned not only with over 4,500 volumes, but also with rumors that the library of his former professor Leopold von Ranke, one of the most eminent historians of the 19th century and then 80 years old, would be made available for purchase after von Ranke’s death. Bennett told Reid that year: “When Leopold von Ranke dies you must purchase his library for the historical department of Syracuse University. Then let the professors in each of the departments find friends to make like purchases for them and Syracuse will be the best furnished institution of the land for original and scholarly work.” In 1888, thanks to Bennett’s persistence and Reid’s generosity, Syracuse University succeeded in purchasing one of the most famous private research libraries of the 19th century, adding 20,000 volumes to its collection on Reid’s condition, however, that the university would provide a building for its library.

Leopold von Ranke in his library, early 1880s. Leopold von Ranke Papers, Special Collections Research Center.

This picture of Leopold von Ranke surrounded by his library was taken only a few years before his death in 1886. Because von Ranke’s books were never systematically arranged, it would take Syracuse until 1913 to catalog them for the first time.

Interior of the von Ranke Library, circa 1900. Syracuse University Photograph Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center.

After spending approximately a year in the basement of the Hall of Languages, the von Ranke Library was moved during March and April of 1889 into its new home in a purpose-built library (the present Tolley Humanities Building). Two years later the report of Bennett’s successor, Henry O. Sibley, noted the University’s total collection size was close to 42,000 volumes. In addition to collection growth, the von Ranke Library years also saw changes in service and organization. In 1894, students were finally able to borrow books from the library, and the following year saw the introduction of the Dewey Decimal System.