Clio Logo
College of William & Mary Walking Tour
Item 2 of 12
Earl Gregg Swem Library is the central library for the College of William & Mary, one of the oldest universities in the United States. The university was founded in 1693 and the library was established in 1698. The library is named in honor of a notable historian, bibliographer, and librarian who helped to grow and organize Virginia’s historical archives and preserve the state’s history.

  • Earl Gregg Swem Library, 2007
  • Dr. Earl Gregg Swem
  • The cornerstone is laid during the construction of the library, 1964

The College of William & Mary’s library was started in 1698 when Virginia Governor Francis Nicholson donated a 200-book collection to the university. All but one of those books, a copy of The History of the Council of Trent, was destroyed along with many other volumes in 1705 when a fire destroyed the original building. The university rebuilt both the building and the collection, and that surviving copy ofThe History of the Council of Trent is now on display at William & Mary's Special Collections Research Center.

After receiving a $20,000 donation from Andrew Carnegie, the university was able to construct a new building that was known only as The Library when it opened in 1905,. That Carnegie-funded library housed the university’s collections until 1966 when the current Earl Gregg Swem Library was opened. The Carnegie-funded building once known as The Library is now know Tucker Hall and houses the English Department. When the Earl Gregg Swem Library opened in January of 1966, parts of the building was still under construction until November of that year when the structure was complete.

This campus library was named in honor of Earl Gregg Swem a historian, bibliographer, and librarian. Before joining the staff at the library at the College of William & Mary, Swem worked for the Library of Congress as the Chief of cataloging in the Copyright Office from 1903 to 1907. He went on to become an assistant librarian for the state of Virginia for twelve years. In this position, Swem expanded the State Library’s collections and created finding aides and catalogs that provided an essential organizational structure. His most famous work is the Virginia Historical Index which remains a valuable tool for historians.

After his time at the State Library, Swem came to the College of William & Mary and began his 24-year career as a librarian for the university. The library’s collections saw a 1300% growth during Swem’s time on staff. Swem pushed the library to offer courses to students on library usage and research, an uncommon practice at the time, and to open an Archives and Manuscripts Department. In addition to his work at the library, Swem served as editor for the William and Mary Quarterly and continued to edit works on Virginia’s history. Earl Gregg Swem died a year before the new library building’s completion and the building was named in honor of Swem’s contributions to the university. 

Back, Tami. Swem Library celebrates 50 years, College of William & Mary. February 4th 2016. Accessed May 4th 2020.

Back, Tami. Earl Gregg Swem, architect of a great library, College of William & Mary. February 5th 2016. Accessed May 4th 2020.,-architect-of-a-great-library.php.

Earl Gregg Swem (1870-1965), Special Collections Research Center Wiki. September 9th 2019. Accessed May 4th 2020.

Fires, Special Collections Research Center Wiki. September 9th 2019. Accessed May 4th 2020.

Swem Library, Special Collections Research Center Wiki. September 9th 2019. Accessed May 4th 2020.

Image Sources(Click to expand)