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Brown, Charles Harvey

Published onJul 30, 2021
Brown, Charles Harvey

(December 23, 1875 - January 19, 1960)

Quick Facts

Library director at Iowa State and a national leader in academic librarianship during the first half of the twentieth century.


Brown, 1922. Source: University Archives, Iowa State University Library

Charles Harvey Brown was born in Albany, New York to James Harvey and Mary E. Smith Brown. He attended Wesleyan University and earned a BA degree in 1897, and then stayed on another two years and earned an MA in mathematics while working as assistant librarian. Brown’s work in the library at Wesleyan evidently appealed to him, because librarianship became his lifelong avocation. He returned to Albany in 1899 and entered the New York State Library School where he completed the coursework necessary for his library certificate in 1901. In July 1901 he began an eighteen-month stint at the Library of Congress where he labored as an Assistant in the Cataloging Division. By early 1903 he was on his way to Chicago where he worked for five years as cataloger and reference librarian at the John Crear Library. The Crear Library’s emphasis on science and technology matched Brown’s personal interests, and he would remain deeply interested in scientific and technical literature throughout his career.

In January 1909, Brown married Julia Wright Heath, with whom he would soon have two sons, Robert, born in 1911 and Charles, born in 1913. In August 1909 Brown returned to the East coast, this time taking a position as Assistant Librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). The BPL was one of the major public libraries of the time, and Brown quickly became immersed in that Library’s commitment to outreach and public service to its immigrant community. After America entered the First World War in 1917, Brown involved himself in a number of wartime library activities and eventually ended up working for the Navy as its first library specialist. During his three years serving the Navy, Brown laid the groundwork for a successful Navy library program. After a while, however, he wearied of the naval bureaucracy and began looking for employment elsewhere. His found his chance for a new beginning at Iowa State College (IAC, now University) in Ames, Iowa, where he took up residence in December 1922. He was 47 years old, not necessarily a young man anymore, but still blessed with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm for his new position as library director.

Brown’s arrival at Iowa State coincided with the final plans for the new library building that would open in 1925. Right from the start the new library director was confronted with the age-old problem of not having enough space—the original building’s size was trimmed after the president deemed it too large to ever be filled, yet within five years Brown would have to find space for the burgeoning collection elsewhere on campus. In 1925 the collection stood at 90,000 volumes, an amount that would eventually grow to 360,000 by the time of Brown’s retirement as director in 1946. Over the years Brown instituted a number of initiatives including the sponsorship of a radio show based on the library’s collections. He was especially interested in making the library’s collection useful and readily accessible to students and faculty. He believed the library’s books needed to be used, not just collected on dusty shelves, and through his efforts circulation quadrupled between 1922 and 1946. Brown also promoted the library’s services by sending books and journals to the offices of faculty members, something that was quite popular on campus.

Increasing use of the library also led Brown to actively support the already-existing program of library instruction, begun in the late nineteenth century, and he himself taught a graduate section of this class focused on scientific research. Brown would continue teaching this course until 1958, when he was in his early 80s. His desire for teaching librarians enabled his professional staff to be granted faculty status by 1940—one of the earliest of such designations for academic librarians. Brown’s commitment to enhancing library support for scientific and technological research was matched by a similar shift in emphasis on such research by the college. Through Brown’s efforts, the Library greatly increased the number of books supporting scientific investigation as well as a significant growth in acquiring new journals in the various scientific fields.

Brown’s significant contributions to the library at Iowa State were equaled with his work within the larger library profession. He was active in numerous library organizations, serving for example as president of the Iowa Library Association in 2928-1929, and he labored for decades in various capacities for the American Library Association, for which he served as president in 1941-1942. He chaired the ALA’s College and Reference section in 1927-1928, and played a leading role in leading that group to become a separate division within the ALA called the Association of College and Reference Libraries in 1938. In 1956 this academic library organization would be renamed the Association of College and Research Libraries. In like fashion, Brown led a corresponding movement in the early 1930s to create a new library body that would be devoted to promoting issues and concerns of college and research university libraries. This new organization, created in 1932, was called the Association of Research Libraries, which today numbers over 125 libraries as members.

Brown was active internationally as well, traveling to Germany in the 1930s to negotiate better subscription terms for German academic journals. He chaired the ACRL Committee on Wartime Activities, and served as an advisor after the war with helping Japan create its national library. At the age of 80 he published his most significant work, Scientific Serials, which encapsulated his lifelong research interest in scientific journals and their role in supporting scholarly investigation.

After he stepped down as director in 1946, Brown stayed on the staff and served worked as a bibliographer and continued teaching his library instruction section to graduate students. He fully retired from the library at the end of 1958 at the age of 83. Brown passed away in 1960 and is interred at the Iowa State University Cemetery.

Charles Harvey Brown was one the most important leaders of the Iowa State University Library in the twentieth century, and whose vision and energy were instrumental in creating services and collections that characterize today’s ISU Library.

Selected Sources

Charles H. Brown Papers, RS 25/01/19, University Archives, Iowa State University Library, Ames, Iowa.

Upon his retirement in 1946, a bibliography of his writings was compiled by Helen Crawford and published in the July 1947 issue of College & Research Libraries.

His major works include: Circulation Work in College and University Libraries, co-authored with H. G. Bousfield (1933); Iowa State Planning Board: Report on Library Service in Iowa (1935); Survey of Land-Grant Colleges and Universities (Bulletin of the U.S. Office of Education, 1930), chapter on Libraries, pp. 609-714; and Scientific Serials (1956), ACRL monograph no. 16. Edward G. Holley wrote two important short biographical essays: “Mr. ACRL: Charles Harvey Brown (1875-1960)” Journal of Academic Librarianship 7 (November 1981): 271-78; and “Charles Harvey Brown,” in Wayne A. Wiegand, ed. Leaders in American Academic Librarianship: 1925-1975 (Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 1983), pp. 11-48.

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