No, I haven’t visited Brown University this summer. I took the image accompanying this post last October, when I took a short vacation in Providence, R.I. I snapped a host of photos during that time—so many that it would have taken me weeks to exhaust them all, and would have left regular readers of this blog exhausted, too.
But I decided to look into them again the other day. One image that immediately caught my eye was this one, of the John Carter Brown Library. Constructed in 1904 on the campus Main Green, it represents the Beaux Arts manner, notable for its classical revivalism. While most of the exterior suggests ancient Greek and Roman architectural elements, it hints at the library’s Americana preoccupation with cornices that feature sculpted headdresses of Brazilian Indians in an exotic hybrid variation on classical Greek ornament.
The library’s collection consisted of 50,000 rare books, printed before approximately 1825, along with manuscripts, reference books and secondary sources. Its exhibits make rich use of their heavy focus on the literature of European exploration and travel in the Western Hemisphere.
The day I visited, for instance, the library’s Reading Room featured “Pamphlet Wars,” an exhibit using the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act as a springboard to examining not just the American Revolution, but also the transatlantic tumult that followed: the French and Haitian revolutions, and the wars for Spanish American independence.
These revolutions originated as wars of ideas waged in the new media of their time: not just pamphlets, but also political cartoons and maps. The Brown Library’s exhibit made me wonder how future historians would see the wars of ideas in our time.