John Carter Brown (1797-1874) was already a collector, from a family of readers who also collected books, when in 1846 he initiated one of the great American collections—and one of the great collections of “Americana.” That year he made three substantial purchases of books in what was a new and growing field for collecting: the early Americas. At his home on Benefit Street in Providence Rhode Island he amassed a library that was hemispheric in scope from the start. There he inspected books on a library table that is still at the JCB today, and fitted them into specialized bookcases that were the model for those that still ring the JCB’s MacMillan Reading Room.
John Carter Brown’s private collection became a research library in 1904 when the building at 94 George Street, on the corner of the main green at Brown University, opened. A gift from the will of the library namesake’s son, John Nicholas Brown I, the JCB has maintained its founding focus on the western hemisphere in the 15th-19th centuries. From books, first John Carter Brown and then subsequent staff of the library expanded the collection to encompass maps, atlases, Indigenous language materials, and other rare materials including manuscripts, and prints such as broadsides and cartoons.
An exhibit “1846: Inventing Americana at the John Carter Brown Library” opened May 19, 2023 online and at the library. It shares the earliest history of the library and begins to suggest some of its implications for subsequent scholarship, a theme the JCB will continue to explore.