Community Connection

Browning Library Counts the Ways to Welcome Visitors

by Terri Barnes

Sunday afternoon sunlight filters through arched windows at Baylor University’s Armstrong Browning Library and Museum, reflecting on the marble floor of the McLean Foyer of Meditation. An attentive crowd of music lovers fills all the available seating in the foyer, including cushioned ledges that line the walls. Voices in harmony, the Baylor Chamber Singers, accompanied by strings and woodwinds, resound from gleaming wood paneling and rise to a golden dome set in the ceiling high above.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Rest eternal grant to them, Lord;
and light perpetual let shine on them

Baylor Chamber singers practice for a performance in Armstrong Browning’s Foyer of Meditation. (Courtesy Baylor University)

Baylor Chamber singers practice for a performance in Armstrong Browning’s Foyer of Meditation. (Courtesy Baylor University)

On Monday morning, excited young voices fill halls and stairwells as elementary school students follow the leader to learn about The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning, depicted in the library in stained glass, illustrations, and books old and new. Meanwhile in nearby classrooms, university students study and discuss subjects from British literature and Victorian poetry to political science and human performance.

Classes, concerts, tours and community events are always in the works at the library, located in the historic heart of Baylor’s campus in Waco, Texas. Visitors come from across the world as well as from the campus and nearby communities, says Armstrong Browning events manager Glenda Ross.

“Last year we had around 33,000 people come to the library,” Glenda says, adding that most are tourists. While this may sound like a lot of outside visitors for a university library, a peek into Armstrong Browning—its contents, construction, and history—reveals why it is a place for study and so much more.

A research center dedicated to the lives and works of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Armstrong Browning Library and Museum houses the world’s largest collection of Browning material, including more than four hundred of the couple’s poetical and literary manuscripts, thousands of their letters, rare first editions of their books, plus furniture, artwork, and many personal items that belonged to them. The library also houses collections of other rare nineteenth-century books, manuscripts, and works of art. The Victorian Collection, for example, includes thousands of letters from writers such as Charles Dickens, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and many more.

Hundreds of artifacts, works of art, and rare books are on display throughout the library, which is free and open to the public six days a week throughout most of the year. Scholars and researchers are frequent visitors to the library.

As library director, Jennifer Borderud has made it a priority to create more opportunities for students to come to Armstrong Browning and see its collections.

Baylor students gather to study in the Leddy Jones Research Hall at Armstrong Browning Library. In the background on the right is the window depicting a scene from The Pied Piper of Hamelin. (Courtesy Baylor University)

Baylor students gather to study in the Leddy-Jones Research Hall at Armstrong Browning Library. In the background on the right is the window depicting a scene from The Pied Piper of Hamelin. (Courtesy Baylor University)

“I want students to feel the excitement of finding, handling, and analyzing rare books, manuscripts, and other primary source materials,” Jennifer says. “Working with these materials can lead to a better understanding of the research process. It can also make the literary figures they are studying come alive in a way that just reading their works in an anthology or paperback cannot.”

Many Baylor students attend classes at the library, and the Leddy-Jones Research Hall and other spaces are open for students to come and study independently.

The library building, completed in 1951, has been listed among the most beautiful libraries in the nation. The three-story Italian Renaissance-style structure is jeweled with sixty-two stained glass windows, most depicting scenes from the Brownings’ life or poetry. Murals, sculpture, and designs throughout the building reflect the literary work and lives of the Brownings. One prevalent motif echoes the title of a series of Robert Browning’s poems, Bells and Pomegranates. In bas relief on the bronze front doors, in terrazzo floor tiles, molded ceiling plasters, and portrait frames, bells and pomegranates abound at Armstrong Browning, symbols of the music and meaning of poetry.

Curator Laura French says sharing the beauty of the library with the community comes naturally, because the library and its collections came together through community effort.

“The gathering of Browning artifacts to Baylor University was spearheaded by Dr. A.J. Armstrong,” she says, “but it was only possible through the efforts of Baylor students and worldwide community of Browning scholars and fans notifying Dr. Armstrong of everything Browning that they were aware of.”

Armstrong was head of Baylor’s English Department from 1912 to 1952. He and his wife, Mary, amassed the extensive Browning collection, while also gathering ideas and inspiration to create a home worthy of the collection. In 1943, Pat Neff, then president of the university committed $100,000 to the library, and Dr. Armstrong raised the rest of the nearly $2 million cost of construction.

“Dr. Armstrong’s letter-writing campaign to former students, legislators, celebrities, and others seeking donations funded the construction,” says Laura. “The land we sit on was donated by the City of Waco. Building the Armstrong Browning Library was a community effort; and we continue to strive to create a welcoming space for our local communities.”

Near the historic center of the Waco campus, the library is also at the heart of contemporary university life, a location for conferences, and classes, ceremonies for student organizations, concerts and lectures. Its huge bronze doors have opened for celebrated visitors, such as Ken Burns and David McCullough. The doors have also welcomed students on scavenger hunts created by a professor who sent students to comb the library for various paintings, sculptures, quotes, and Browning items.

“It was fun to have so many students coming in,” says Glenda, “trying to find the bronze casting of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s clasped hands, or the giant painting of John the Baptist, painted by the Browning’s son, Pen, or the ticket to Robert Browning’s funeral.”

“Building the Armstrong Browning Library was a community effort; and we continue to strive to create a welcoming space for our local communities.” – Laura French, curator

An alcove in the Foyer of Meditation is rumored to be a popular place among students for marriage proposals. The walls of the alcove are decorated with gold-leaf renditions of love poems the Brownings wrote for each other, including Elizabeth’s lines “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” The alcove is also where scavenger hunters and couples alike will find the bronze cast of the poets’ clasped hands.

Weddings are sometimes held in the same location, but only on a limited basis. Armstrong Browning is a busy space, with classes, tours, and other events, so weddings are limited to one per month.

Some recent tour groups at the library include middle schoolers participating in freedom school, a literacy enrichment program, and a group of visually-impaired veterans from the Waco VA Medical Center.

For the veterans, Glenda explains, “Justin Kroll, our main tour guide, created a tour of the building in which some of the architectural features were available to touch. Justin even sang opera in the Foyer of Meditation to demonstrate the remarkable acoustics in the room. It was a rewarding experience for all of us.”

Justin recalls that he sang “The Year’s at the Spring” by Amy Beach, a song with words echoing a passage from Robert Browning’s “Pippa Passes.”

“I do often sing on my tours if the group asks, and this is my go-to piece,” he says. Justin began working at the library as a graduate student at Baylor and continued after earning a master of music degree in voice performance.

As well as giving tours and impromptu concerts, Justin runs the library’s Instagram feed, showcasing the photogenic building and its contents. One day, he discovered a cardboard cutout of Elizabeth Barrett Browning tucked away in a third-floor office. The nearly life-size alter-ego of the poet, based on an 1858 oil painting by Michele Gordigiani, was only used once a year at the Homecoming open house. Justin thought “Liz,” as he dubbed her, could use a bit more exposure.

Elizabeth Browning cut-out at Baylor University's Armstrong Browning Library and Museum, Books Make a Difference magazine

Liz welcomes visitors to Armstrong Browning on Instagram, showing off the bells and pomegranates motif on the front doors. (Courtesy Justin Kroll)

“On a whim, I snapped a photo of Liz outside our front doors,” says Justin. He began posting pictures of Liz on Instagram in and around the library, and soon #LifeWithLiz was born. “It took a few months for Liz to refine her personality, but she has settled into this very hip, yet extremely moody essence that really connects well with our Instagram audience.”

Liz has plenty of followers and fans and is now seen all around campus and beyond, including a photo shoot with Baylor’s women’s basketball team after they won the 2019 NCAA national championship. She’s also been seen out and about in Waco visiting locations for HGTV’s popular show Fixer Upper. Justin says Liz has introduced the library to people who might not have connected with it otherwise.

“We loved getting Liz out of the house, if you will, and we received a good amount of new followers in the process,” he says. “Liz has helped us bring the library to life and to show that we are not as stuffy as people think.”

With a wealth of literary artifacts and resources, Armstrong Browning could certainly afford to be stuffy, to rest on its bells and pomegranates and burnish its reputation as a research facility for literary scholars. However, curator Laura French says that wouldn’t be in the spirit of the library or in its best interests.

“The collection retains its value by being accessible to the public,” she says. “When several instructors request the same items regularly for instruction sessions this reinforces the relevancy of our collections. To meet the demand for resources, we might try to acquire either additional copies or related materials. This strategy strengthens our collection and broadens the selection of artifacts that instructors and researchers can draw on within the collection.”

The library building has seen a few changes over the decades as well, with the addition of more community spaces. In 1995, the lower level was remodeled to include a reception hall and gift shop. Outside, in the shade of live oak trees planted when the library was built, the Garden of Contentment was planted in 2012. In addition to newer trees and shrubs, the garden has a fountain, shady pathways, benches, and tables, open to students and visitors.

The Armstrong Browning calendar includes events that are both traditional and innovative. The Baylor Chamber singers Christmas concert, held at the library since 1967, is a guaranteed full house. In the spring, Browning Day honors the birthdays of both poets with lectures, presentations and a reception. Browning Day in 2019 included a cinematic virtual reality presentation developed by a PhD student to celebrate the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

“No two days are the same,” says Glenda, of her work at Armstrong Browning. She says new people come in the door daily from all over the country and the world; and even historic pieces of the library offer new discoveries.

“Every day I notice some little detail of architecture that I hadn’t noticed before or how the light comes through the stained glass windows a certain way,” she says. “There is such beauty and peace here, and I know that Dr. Armstrong intended it to be shared with the campus and community.”

A young library-goer gets a first look Armstrong Browning’s entrance foyer. (Courtesy Justin Kroll)

A young library-goer gets a first look Armstrong Browning’s entrance foyer. (Courtesy Justin Kroll)

Armstrong Browning Library
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IG: @Browning.Library

Baylor University
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IG: @BaylorUniversity

Baylor English Department
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Baylor Chamber Singers
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Armstrong Browning Library on lists of most beautiful libraries in the United States:
The 10 Most Beautiful Libraries in the United States (Mental Floss)
Most Beautiful College Libraries (Campus Grotto)
America’s Most Beautiful College Libraries (BBC)

Terri Barnes is the senior editor of Elva Resa Publishing, author of Spouse Calls: Messages from a Military Life, and a graduate of Baylor University. She says beautiful libraries and people who love them are reassurance, in the words of Robert Browning, that “All’s right with the world.”

This article first published October 2019.

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