A great library should tell a great story. This sentiment was expressed often by Minnesota industrialist James Ford Bell as he contemplated the development of his library. It was not the story of acquiring books and manuscripts that he was anticipating, rather the story in their contents—the record of human experience committed to paper and ink. "Bound fragments of time," he called them in his address on October 30, 1953, when he entrusted his personal library to the University of Minnesota, where he envisioned its continued growth and the opportunity to tell its story.
The James Ford Bell Library has indeed grown in the more than 50 years it has been a part of the university, from Mr. Bell's original contribution of 600 items focused on European expansion to approximately 30,000 rare books, maps, and manuscripts that tell the story of international trade and its impact around the world. The collection ranges from handwritten invoices for goods dated as early as 400 CE to early 19th-century accounts of expeditions into the North American wilderness. Merchants, explorers, colonists, missionaries, and other travelers recorded their experiences in the books and manuscripts that form the heart of the collection. Treaties, account books, insurance contracts, navigational tools, and textbooks illuminate the practical aspects of their adventures, while the library's many geographies, atlases, and maps provide a physical representation of their dreams and achievements.
The great story of human global interaction before the modern age is enjoyed, investigated, and retold by the hundreds of students and researchers who use the collection each year. The Bell Library inspires visits and class projects by students in courses as varied as Revolutions in Science: The Babylonians to Newton, Visual Culture in the Atlantic World, and Middle Eastern Geographies. Dissertation research in the Bell collection is currently focused on accounts of 16th-century earthquakes in Peru, the failed attempt to develop a Dutch West Indies trading company, and the cultural construction of Africa by 18th-century Europeans, among others. A recent visiting scholar investigated the treatment of Jews in 18th-century Surinam.
Recently, a post-graduate volunteer has been working on a detailed collection description of the family and business papers of a 17th-century English diplomat and merchant, Sir Thomas Bendish. The student's excitement and enthusiasm for the project has led to her decision to pursue graduate studies in the correlation between diplomacy and trade in the early modern world—a decision that would have warmed the heart of the library's founder, a merchant and book collector who saw in global commerce the best long-range hope for friendship among nations.
The James Ford Bell Library enjoys support from both the University of Minnesota and the wider community that enables it to add to the collection, and to reach out to both the scholarly and general communities through lectures, exhibitions, special events, and publications. The James Ford Bell Library, its premier collection, and its innovative programs support scholarship and education at all levels, enriching the community by helping to make the world more meaningful.
Collection Profile: Marguerite Ragnow
Overview: Kris Kiesling
Illustrations: Ahn Na Brodie