Source: Chicago Tribune
James Wells, former Newberry Library expert, dies
James Wells (Newberry Library photo)
By Graydon Megan,,
Special to the Tribune
LibrariesHistoryUniversity of ChicagoColumbia UniversityWest Virginia UniversityNorthwestern University
Obituary: James Wells was known as a real bookman.
Obituary: 'He was one of the most important rare book specialists in the U.S.' In more than 30 years with Chicago's Newberry Library, James W. Wells gained a wide reputation as an authority on the history of printing, typography and calligraphy.
"He was one of the most important rare book specialists in the U.S. from the late 1950s through the 1970s," said Paul Gehl, the George Amos Poole III Curator of Rare Books with the Newberry. Gehl said Mr. Wells was known as a real bookman — the term for such a specialist used by those in the field.
He had an inexhaustible knowledge and a remarkable memory for every book that ever passed through his hands.
- Alice Schreyer, interim director of the University of Chicago Library
"He was in so many ways the epitome of the old-fashioned bookman," said Alice Schreyer, interim director of the University of Chicago Library. "He had an inexhaustible knowledge and a remarkable memory for every book that ever passed through his hands."
A bookman looks at the physical characteristics of books, which Schreyer said can include "former ownership, bindings, typefaces — things that distinguish them as physical artifacts as well as conveyors of information. He was just a fount of knowledge."
Mr. Wells, 96, died of natural causes Monday, Sept. 1, in Chicago's Warren Barr Gold Coast, where he had resided for several years.
He was born and grew up in West Virginia. After earning an undergraduate degree from Northwestern University, he went on to Columbia University, where he got a master's degree in English.
He taught English at West Virginia University for a year, then held a fellowship before his academic career was interrupted by service in World War II in the Navy Reserve. He returned to Columbia after the war to study and teach before receiving a Fulbright fellowship that took him to London to study for two years.
"He used to say he set out to … study and teach Victorian literature," Gehl said. But along the way, Mr. Wells shifted his focus from the stories in books to the books themselves.
"This happens to people who start out with an academic interest and then move into the library world," Gehl said.
In London, Mr. Wells met the late printing historian and typographer Stanley Morison, who had a connection with the Newberry and recommended Mr. Wells for a post there.
The independent Newberry Library offers readers and researchers an extensive noncirculating collection of rare books, maps, music, manuscripts and other printed material spanning six centuries.
"He started as curator of our specialized collection on the history of printing," Gehl said. In 1951, Mr. Wells became custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing, a post Gehl took on after Mr. Wells retired in 1984.
Mr. Wells had several jobs at the Newberry, including a stint as custodian of the Rare Book Room in 1963. The next year he became the library's associate director. In 1975 he became vice president and in 1981 added the title of George Amos Poole III Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.
Mr. Wells worked closely with area collectors to bring a number of important collections to the Newberry. A landmark in Mr. Wells' career came in 1964 when he was instrumental in the library's acquisition of the Louis H. Silver Collection of English and Continental early and first editions.
Gehl said Mr. Wells did important work not only in helping the library acquire rare and antiquarian books but also in the acquisition of important map collections and in the collection of modern literary manuscripts.
Mr. Wells made regular book-buying trips to Europe. "He knew so many legendary figures (in the field) and he had great stories about everybody," Schreyer said.
Gehl noted that Mr. Wells played a key role in drumming up support for the Newberry as it and other nonprofits found themselves facing dwindling endowments.
"They had to shift a lot of attention to fundraising," Gehl said. "Jim was in the first generation of special collection librarians who did that."
As part of that effort, Mr. Wells created the Newberry Library Associates when few libraries had those kinds of supporting membership groups.
Mr. Wells was a longtime member of the Caxton Club of Chicago, founded by and for book lovers in 1895. He joined the club in 1951, the same year he came to Chicago and began his Newberry career.
In a 2007 profile in the club's journal, Mr. Wells described himself as a "reader, not a collector."
But Schreyer said Mr. Wells did have some collectible volumes, not all of which went to the Newberry. "Jim was the quintessential example of sharing and generosity that exists in this community," Schreyer said.
While he was an important person and supporter of Newberry, she said, he was also a "very good friend of the University of Chicago Library."
"In some of his gifts the Newberry may have had first picks," Schreyer said, "but the University of Chicago also got some wonderful things from him as well."
There are no immediate survivors.
Mr. Wells will be remembered with an exhibit and party at the Newberry next year.