Before 1859, if you wanted to check out a book from the college library, you would have to hunt down the student who’s dorm room was being used as the library.
That’s right, according to The History of Olivet, by the Rev. Wolcott B. Williams, there was no permanent space for the college’s collection of books. This meant that some lucky student got to play librarian.
In 1859, the Ladies’ Hall (which was later replaced by Old Shipherd Hall, after it burned in 1882) was completed. The college’s collection of books, which numbered just over 1,500, was moved to the ground floor of the Ladies’ Hall and out of the dorm rooms. According to Williams, it was there that the little “library” of Olivet College remained until 1870.
The collection of books had grown to about 4,000 and was quickly growing, bringing the need for a larger space. Parson Hall soon became the new home of the library. But the position of Librarian did not become an official title until 1879, according to Williams.
In 1865 professor Joseph L. Daniels, a Yale graduate, joined the Olivet faculty as professor of the Greek language and literature and eventually took over the fledgling library. It was “a cherished dream of his that the college would some day come into possession of funds that would enable it to erect a fire-proof building for the preservation of the library,” wrote Williams. He was in luck.
According to current Burrage Library director Judy Fales, Daniels’ wife wrote to her wealthy uncle, Captain Leonard Burrage of Leominster, Mass., to ask for donations, to which he complied.
According to a small article in the Ann Arbor Argus, on April 27, 1888, “a Michigan college [was] in luck.” Upon his death, Burrage left $20,000 to Olivet College for the construction of a library building.
Along with Burrage’s donation, and donations of $15,000 from Lucy E. Tuttle of Guilford, Conn. and $5,000 from Henry W. Sage of Ithaca, N.Y., Olivet College was to have a real library.
On Commencement Day 1889, the cornerstone of Burrage Library was put in place and, after just a year of construction, the library was finished in 1890. It was considered to be one of the finest libraries in the state. According to Daniels, the structure of the building with massive stones, granite, and sandstone “present[ed] the happy combination of strength and beauty.”
The library became a staple of campus life from that point on.
Almost a century later to the day of its original establishment, the library underwent major remodeling in 1990. Ground was broken on May 5, 1990 for the new addition to the library, according to the Summer 1990 edition of the Shipherd’s Record. Construction went as planned, reported the Winter 1991 edition of the Shipherd’s Record, until the back wall of Burrage Library collapsed on Jan. 17, 1991. Instead of a small hallway connecting the new addition to the old, the blueprints were quickly revised to include a large open area connecting the two sides. The remodeling went off without an issue after that. By May 8, 1993, the remodeling was complete, and Burrage Library was dedicated then reopened to the public.
Today, Burrage Library is recognized as the longest continuously operating library in the state of Michigan.