Libraries & Culture 37.2 (2002) 175-182
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The celebration of the Navy Department Library's two hundred-year anniversary revitalized an important symbol, its bookplate, and provided an opportunity to investigate the library's history, promote its valuable collections, and deliver greater access to its collections. A successful search at the Bureau of Engraving for the original plate resulted in new life for the little-used, 8.5-by-11-centimeter bookplate, and the bicentennial provided the perfect occasion to use this symbol in invitations, posters, and Website exhibits.
Adolph C. Ruebsam, an engraver in the Navy's Hydrographic Office, designed the library's 1906 bookplate. The design and symbolism represent the U.S. Navy's relationship to its country and to the sea. The bald eagle represents U.S. sovereignty; the anchor, the navy and hope; Neptune and the Nereid, ancient mythology; the shell, the deep sea; the frigate Constitution, U.S. naval victories.
Bookplates used prior to 1906, though similar in size and format, were changed frequently (figure 1). Accession numbers, finding aids, [End Page 175] locations, and even cataloger initials provide useful information concerning the library's location, size, cataloging system, and staff. Navy bureaus, ships, and other shore establishment libraries also used bookplates. As these offices were disestablished or reorganized, books were often transferred to the departmental library (figure 2). It is not uncommon to find a volume in the collection with three bookplates pasted one on top of the other. Materials donated by famous leaders and commanders also yield interesting plates (figure 3). Rear Adm. George Henry Preble's collection of naval registers, tracts, and other volumes contains wonderful hand-written notes and pasted-in materials as well as unique hand-inscribed bookplates. Of special interest is the "Prebble" spelling on the bookplate.
From its beginning in a tavern in Trenton, New Jersey, to its present home in the Washington Navy Yard, the Navy Department Library has been steeped in our nation's history. Library roots took hold in 1794, when the Naval Bureau and its records, books, and documents [End Page 176] were part of the War Department in the federal capital of Philadelphia. In 1798 the navy gained departmental status, and the secretary of the navy took possession of the bureau's library collection. The War Department responded to the change by evicting the library from its Philadelphia quarters. Finding temporary refuge in a tavern in Trenton, New Jersey, it remained there until the Department of the Navy moved to the new capital in Washington, D.C. Wagons loaded with naval books and records soon followed, while a schooner transported library furnishings to Georgetown.
A letter from President John Adams to Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert, dated 31 March 1800, documents the official establishment of the Navy Department Library. Adams asked Stoddert to establish a library for the navy and "to employ some of his clerks in preparing a catalog of books for his office. It ought to consist of all the best writings in Dutch, Spanish, French, and especially in English, upon the theory and practice of naval architecture, navigation, gunnery, hydraulics, hydrostatics, and all branches of mathematics subservient to the profession of the sea."
Commandeering wagons during the 1814 burning of Washington, the navy demonstrated its commitment to retain important books [End Page 177] and documents. Rushed to safety north of the federal city, the library's collection escaped the fate of other government libraries and agencies whose materials were destroyed or burned. Following the War of 1812, the library's collection returned to Washington, occupying part of a reconstructed two-story building known as the Old Navy Department Building at 17th Street between F and G Streets.
An 1824 library catalog indicates the collection totaled more than thirteen hundred volumes; an 1829 catalog includes titles of the portraits, engravings, and charts, then part of the collection. Many titles from these early catalogs remain, but later historical accounts report the transfer of portraits, engravings, and charts to the Library of Congress.
In 1879 the navy's library moved to its most prestigious location...