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TL v59n2: A Brief History of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library
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Tennessee Libraries 

Volume 59 Number 2



 A Brief History of the

Jean and Alexander Heard Library

Compiled by

Bill Hook, Assistant Dean for Collections; Director, Divinity Library


Celia Walker, Director, Peabody Library



The original Vanderbilt Library was housed in the Main Building, (later College Hall and now Kirkland Hall) at the time of the university’s founding in 1873.  The collection held approximately six thousand volumes and was open from nine to two daily under the supervision of a junior faculty member.  Senior faculty members searched European bookshops in the summer to add to the collection and many of the faculty eventually left personal libraries to build the collection. 

Following the disastrous fire of 1905 in the Main Building, efforts to rebuild the library followed. The general library had been housed in one large front room of the second floor.  The fire took a large portion of the collection, and while some tried to save books by throwing them from the second story windows, most were too damaged to be of use.   Only the theological library, which was housed in Wesley Hall, and small collections in chemistry and geology that were housed in Science Hall were saved.

Several universities (notably Yale) donated books from their own presses and the Library of Congress sent many duplicates to Vanderbilt. The Superintendent of Documents sent a nearly complete set of governmental publications and the U.S. Geological Survey donated many duplicate materials [Conkin, 1985, p. 196].   The collection was again housed in the reconstructed building. 

In 1925, the main collection was moved to the former chapel site on the third floor.  A second disastrous fire in Wesley Hall in 1932 destroyed at least one-half of the of the School of Religion’s collection.

Dr. A. Frederick Kuhlman (1936-1960) became the Director of Libraries in 1936.  As a result of separate proposals sent to the General Education Board (GEB) by both Vanderbilt and Peabody College, each seeking funding for a new library building, the GEB proposed the creation of a joint library system serving several Nashville colleges. 

In December 1938, the Joint University Library Corporation (JUL) was created. Participants were Vanderbilt University, George Peabody College for Teachers, and Scarritt College for Christian Workers.  Each institution appointed members of its own board of trust to the Board of Library Trust.  Each institution paid an annual fee based on student enrollment that covered operating expenses for the library.  One director ran the JUL, and funding was established to construct the General Library Building (GLB).  While earlier plans had envisioned a library building more in the center of campus, the GLB was erected at the base of the lawn (created by the eventual demolition of old Wesley Hall), right off of Hillsboro Road [McGaw, 1978, p. 79].

On December 6, 1941, one thousand people attended the dedication of the new library, built with funds from the General Education Board, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Vanderbilt community, which was rallied to the cause by Nashville publisher James G. Stahlman [Conkin, 1985, p. 413] .  Due to the defense priorities of the war, the building had to open without all of its intended equipment.  At the time of the opening, the Library held nearly 400,000 volumes.

Upon Mr. Kuhlman’s retirement in 1960, David Kaser (1960-1968) became Director of Libraries. In 1961, the Library opened the stacks to undergraduate patrons, a privilege once reserved for graduate students and faculty.  The Vanderbilt Alumnus suggested that the Library place aid stations throughout the stacks in case students lose their way “in the maze of shelves and not find their way out for days” ["Self Service in the JUL”, 1961].  In the same year, the library budget exceeded $500,000 for the first time.

Dr. Kaser resigned in 1968 to become the Director of Libraries for Cornell University.  During his tenure, the library budget grew to one million dollars (1965) and the one-millionth volume was added to the library (1966): Liber Chronicarium (Nuremberg Chronicle) of 1493, which was donated by Jesse Ely Wills. The H. Fort Flowers library wing (1969) was designed and constructed during Dr. Kaser’s tenure, adding shelf space for an additional 350,000 volumes [Conkin, 1985, p. 657].

Director Frank P. Grisham (1969 -1984) saw the establishment of the Television News Archives as part of the library system.  The TVNA was created in 1968 with funding from Nashville insurance executive and Vanderbilt alumnus, Paul C. Simpson.  Also in Grisham’s tenure, the W.T. Bandy Center for Baudelaire and Modern French Studies was founded as a joint project of the Department of French and Italian and the Central Library, in which it is located. In 1974 the Library began to catalog materials using the OCLC computer-based network, and Jean Heard (wife of Chancellor Heard) established the Friends of the Library. 

The Joint University Library Corporation was dissolved in 1979 with the merger of Vanderbilt and Peabody College, and the system became known as the Vanderbilt University Library.  The system was renamed the Jean and Alexander Heard Library five years later, in honor of Chancellor Emeritus Alexander Heard and his wife Jean.

That same year Malcolm Getz (1984-1995) was named Director of the Library.  Under Getz, the first integrated library automation system was installed. Called "Acorn," the system reflected not only the presence of an acorn on the Vanderbilt family crest, but also served as a metaphor for source, beginnings, nurture, and compactness.  In 1992, the two-millionth volume was acquired: Journal of the Proceedings of the Congress, held at Philadelphia, September 5, 1774, the first edition of the official journal of the Continental Congress, donated by Ridley Wills II. During Getz’s tenure the library pushed forward rapidly in the area of networking and electronic resources.  The emergence of the Internet and web based resources initiated dramatic changes in libraries, beginning the shift in focus from print materials to electronic.

Following Malcolm Getz’s return to the faculty, Paul M. Gherman (1996-2008) was named University Librarian.  Mr. Gherman was actively involved in creating new collaborative efforts between Vanderbilt and groups such as NALA (Nashville Area Library Alliance), SOLINET, and ARL. Gherman led the effort to establish the Electronic Tools and Ancient Near East Archives project [ETANA], a subject portal established in 2000 to facilitate access to original research in ancient history and archeology ["ETANA,"].  Continued rapid evolution of web based resources, and electronic publications furthered the migration of the Vanderbilt libraries toward the ‘library without walls’ concept.  By the end of Mr. Gherman’s tenure, more than two thirds of the use of library resources was via the web, rather than users within the library buildings.

After Mr. Gherman’s decision to retire in 2008, the University established an extensive review and search process to recruit a new leader for the Heard Library.  As a result of that process, Connie Vinita Dowell was appointed the first Dean of Libraries for Vanderbilt University.  Among the goals for the new Dean will be to lead a campus-wide planning process for the future of the library at Vanderbilt, including a vision of a “destination library.”


Conkin, P. K. (1985). Gone with the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

ETANA.  Retrieved August 24, 2009, from

McGaw, R. A. (1978). The Vanderbilt campus: a pictorial history. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Self-Service at JUL. (1961). Vanderbilt Alumnus, 47(2). 

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