Claremont, Calif. — You could run through several fonts’ worth of exclamation points without accurately representing Judy Harvey Sahak’s enthusiasm for Scripps College’s Denison Library, where she is the longtime librarian. Even now, with most of the books removed and the 1960s wing shuttered, Ms. Sahak’s love of the place and its collections turned an impromptu tour the other day into a rich, illustrated history of the college, its best-loved treasures, and the women who have learned from them over the past 80 years. Somewhere between the magnificent illuminations in a 16th-century volume of liturgical music and a delightful accordion book made by Scripps students and called the Red Shoe Reader, Ms. Sahak said, “I think the trustees really thought they couldn’t let this library close.”
The surprise here, indeed, is that Denison isn’t locked and gathering dust. More than a year ago, the economic downturn forced the presidents of the seven institutions that make up the Claremont University Consortium to cut back the consortium’s spending on libraries. Science libraries at Harvey Mudd and Pomona Colleges closed soon afterward, while the Scripps Library, which had joined the consortium in 1970 and housed humanities and arts collections, was given a one-year extension.
The new Scripps president, Lori Bettison-Varga, talked the situation over with trustees and alumni, and eventually decided that Denison should remain open, even though Scripps would have to foot the bills itself. As Ms. Sahak tells it, the consensus was that the library, with its high stained-glass windows and soaring, vaulted reading room, was “an icon of what a Scripps education should be,” even in an increasingly digital age.
This past summer all the consortium-owned books were removed to the main Honnold/Mudd Library, leaving Denison with a modest browsing library, the college archives, a splendid rare-books collection, and plenty of comfortable alcoves and tables for studying. Ms. Sahak moved to the Scripps payroll along with two assistants. She said the college’s plan is to integrate the library—and especially the rare books—into the curriculum for Scripps, which enrolls just under 1,000 women on a lovely, compact campus of courtyards, trees, and lawns.
The older part of Denison dates to 1931 and was designed by Gordon Kaufmann, the college’s original architect. The donor, Ella Strong Denison, originally wanted to give just a stained-glass window, but was eventually persuaded to give the building around it, as well. Ms. Sahak said Kaufmann balked at the donor’s insistence on the Spanish Renaissance style, which he thought would ruin the campus’s more modern look. He gave in only after being told to choose between letting some other architect spoil the campus with a Spanish Renaissance building and spoiling it himself.
“Alumnae throughout the decades have had a special relationship with this library,” Ms. Sahak said. It’s not hard to see why, especially in the cozy clutter of the rare-books room, which vellum antiquities share with newer volumes. Among the latter are annual products of the Scripps College Press, which was founded by one of Ms. Sahak’s predecessors and which in 1941 commissioned its own type font from the famous designer Frederic W. Goudy—Scripps College Old Style. You can recognize it, she told me, by a distinctive toe on the lowercase “s.”
Ms. Sahak intends to keep that special relationship with the library alive for future alumni. When I stopped by, books that Scripps classes had recently used lined tables and library carts—a shelf’s worth of early texts by Spanish women, a spread of volumes about women and sexuality, first editions of Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn. The collection ranges from cuneiform tablets through papyri and incunabula, but Ms. Sahak said her favorite volume might be an oversized 1975 book of Robinson Jeffers poems that was made by the poet and printer William Everson and published by the University of California at Santa Cruz. The book, titled Granite and Cypress after a poem of the same name, comes with a handmade box of, naturally, granite and cypress.
No matter what the volume, Ms. Sahak lets students touch the bindings, turn the pages, admire the paper, run their fingers across the type. “The best thing is, students get to handle the books,” she told me, turning page after beautiful page of Jeffers’ poems. It’s hard to imagine a better way to make sure that alumnae love their library for generations to come.