Miller Library: the history of Colby campus’ centerpiece

From staying up late on the third floor trying to cram for an exam to scrambling to print out an assignment last-minute, many Colby students spend hours in Miller Library. The library is the focal point of the College. Though students recognize that it has a long history, not many actually know its background. While Colby continues to push forward with new buildings, facilities, and innovations, it is still important to reflect back on the stories and traditions this campus has to offer—and Miller Library is a good place to start.

Despite its position as the image of the Colby campus, Miller Library was not built until after the College’s inception. When Colby was founded in 1813, the school and its campus looked drastically different. Colby was not yet on Mayflower Hill; it went by a different name, and the school had yet to begin construction on its first building. That building would be constructed in 1821.  It was built in downtown Waterville, and named South College. South College allowed space for classrooms, recitation halls, and the school’s original library. This was the first example of the College being resourceful and using one building for numerous purposes—a trend that would continue with both buildings and libraries alike.

In 1939,  President Franklin Johnson announced a new project to construct a Colby library on Mayflower Hill as a result of a generous donation from a member of the Class of 1890. Dr. Merton Miller funded the project, and thus, the library was named Miller Library. The announcement of the library was met with enthusiasm, and Colby faculty decided to assemble a box of significant items to bury under the library’s foundation. According to the October 4, 1939 addition of The Echo, the faculty hoped that their box “some thousands of years in the future may help identify the Miller Library to archeologists and historians who are seeking evidences of past civilization and culture.” Although the hope and enthusiasm for Miller Library was high, World War II brought complications in the library’s construction. The war diminished the amount of workers available to build the library, and the project was postponed. Ultimately, the library took eight years to complete and was ready to open in the spring of 1947.

Due to the lack of buildings on campus, many classrooms, offices, and other facilities found a home in Miller Library. According to Earl H. Smith’s Mayflower Hill: History of Colby College, “The English department carved offices among the carrels of the stacks; two lecture rooms were separated by a supply and mimeographing room.” Additionally, both the Colby bookstore and the Spa were opened in the ground floor of Miller. With space being scarce, the bookstore and Spa shared the same area. The bookstore was one of the smallest in the country, while the Spa was cramped into a tiny space in the corner of the room. Today they are two staples of Colby’s campus, but they are just two of many aspects of Miller Library with their own vibrant history.

Although all aspects of Miller have their own stories, perhaps the object with the most history is the statue older than Miller itself. Every day, students walk through the Street and pass “The Lion of Lucerne.” Sculpted by Martin Milmore, this four-ton marble statue was inspired by a Bertel Thorvaldsen statue saluting fallen Swiss guards who defended Louis XVI in 1792. The Colby lion honored those students who gave their lives during the Civil War and was placed in Memorial Hall, an entire building dedicated to the same cause. The lion was one of the campus’ more attractive pieces and students created an unusual tradition of rubbing the lion’s nose before heading to an exam. After the College’s move up to Mayflower Hill, the lion was one of the few structures that came.  According to Earl Smith, it took 11 days for people to move the statue to its new home in the basement of Miller.

It remained in a reading room window until the early 1980s when renovations forced the statue to be put away. However, in the spring of 2003, English professor Peter Harris started a student movement to move the statue to a more prominent location.  In the October 16, 2003 issue of The Echo, Harris stated, “We were reading a book, Paul Loeb’s ‘Soul of a Citizen,’ about ordinary people who work for change. I proposed, as a kind of experiment in such change, that we try to free the Lion from the library basement.”  Harris’ students took action, and on August 26 2003, The Lion of Lucerne was moved to its current location in the Street of Miller.

Much like the other parts of campus, Miller Library has evolved over the years. In 1982, the College opened up a new south wing of Miller to students. Unfortunately, the rest of the library remained closed off for renovations that year. This caused complications for students visiting Miller for its study spaces. The September 16, 1982 issue of the Echo outlined the problem stating, “in the first week of the semester, book-bearing students, unable to find empty cubes or study seats, were sprawled on the carpeted floors and propped in the corners of the new south wing.” 

While the ’82 reconstructions were an inconvenience, they did not cause nearly as much backlash as the most recent Miller renovations. In 2014, phase one of a two-phase project took place that gave Colby the library students know today. The frustrated faculty and students were upset with the movement of many of the books from Miller to outside storage, as well as a transition from printed books to an electronic alternative. These changes sparked conversation over both the importance of printed books and the student and faculty involvement in important decisions. The faculty initially filed a petition to halt the renovations until a discussion about these changes could occur. “Using the recent Miller Library renovations as a case study, this memo expresses shared faculty concerns about the troubling ways in which major decisions relating to the academic program are sometimes taken at the College. It also expresses our hope for a shift towards a more open, participatory, deliberative process,” a group of faculty members stated in the petition. In addition, they also wrote an open letter to Colby about their discontent with the library’s changes. The letter was printed in the April 10, 2014 issue of the Echo. In it, the faculty voiced their displeasures with both the Administration and trustees’ reluctance to have a discussion with them. They also talked about their frustrations with the changes already made. “Books have disappeared into storage, administration offices have appeared or will arise where stacks of books once stood, the reference area has been purged and the central floor looks like a massive waiting room, designed for students and other patrons to look at each other in between Google searches rather than engage in thoughtful contemplation and scholarship,” they said.

The faculty were not the only members upset with Miller’s changes. Students also called into question the administration’s handling of the renovations. In the March 20, 2014 issue of the Echo, an article on Miller’s controversial changes was published. In it, the author voiced his own resentment over the way Colby went about these renovations. “The plans and timeframe of this project were perhaps not as clearly communicated as they could have been, but it is important to consider that the College is not, and has not been, a democracy. While input is of course appreciated and listened to, the nature of decision-making necessitates a more streamlined process,” the article said.

Despite all the controversy, Colby continued with its changes to Miller. Today, the frustration has subsided. Miller Library continues to stand tall and students continue to take advantage of all it has to offer. Changes will continue, buildings will be built and renovated, and sometimes the best thing to do is to stop for a moment and appreciate how far Colby has come. Perhaps one day, a student might stop in the Street, on his or her way to an exam in Lovejoy or Diamond, and rub The Lion of Lucerne’s nose—as both an acknowledgement of Colby’s storied past and a wish for good fortune—before continuing on their way.

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