University Library and Archives Shed Light on Extensive Hymnal Collection

By: Willy Nichter, Staff Writer Photographer: Willy Nichter

On Tuesday, April 3, the Drew University Library put on its final “Out of the Vault” event for the 2018 spring semester, an exploration of a variety of hymn books from different time periods and locations

The event, titled “Music in the Archives: Hymns, Harmonies, and High Notes,” was designed to highlight Drew University’s collection of over 6,000 hymn books, which is the eighth largest collection in the country and second largest in the state of New Jersey.

“We get 80 to 100 hymn books dropped off at our front step…every year,” said Brian Shetler, head of Special Collections, who compared the books to “unwanted children.”

Shetler began the event with a brief historical overview, talking about some particular hymnals which were of notable importance, such as the selections from the Bennet and Frank Mason North collections on the front table. He also went into the history of the collection itself, talking about David Creamer, whose donation of 700 hymn books forms the cornerstone of the university’s collection.

Shetler made special note of the variety of places that the hymnals came from. “More than twenty-five countries and twenty languages are represented in the collection, including Tamil, Bengali, Burmese, Chinese, Korean, Zulu and Chippewa, in addition to nearly all the European languages,” he said.

And with that, he turned the event over to Guy Dobson, in charge of Systems at the Library. Dobson went on to point out some hymnals of particular note, as well as to explain his particular connection to the collection.

“I started playing the organ in church when I was 19 years old, and I played for a lot of different denominations,” said Dobson, who was first made aware of the collection when being interviewed for a job at the university. “I noticed that a lot of denominations sing the same hymn…I find that very interesting.”

From there, Dobson mentioned several of the hymnals that were on display, including a fifteenth century chorale book, which is the largest book in the collection.

Not only ancient books were represented, however. At least two of the hymnals are from the mid-to-late 1900s, and are seen as particularly important to the modern performances of hymns.

After a brief period for questions, guests were set loose to peruse the assembled hymnals, which included a fourteenth century Latin psalter, a hymnal from the Rhode Island Church where Ichabod Crane is supposedly buried and a hymnal that allowed the reader to flip and choose what tune they wanted to sing each hymn to.

Dobson’s work with the collection continues, as he is currently attempting to map the dispersion of hymns and hymnals. This will include examining their spread, their lyrics and the variety of different tunes they have been set to, which can differ greatly from hymnal to hymnal. “What I’m interested in doing is seeing the evolution of hymns,” said Dobson of his hopes for the project.

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