In honor of William Boulton Dixon '15: a collection of contemporary works at PUL

William Boulton Dixon

William Boulton Dixon. From the Class Reunion Books Collection, University Archives, Princeton University Library

This month marks the centenary of the death of William Boulton Dixon, a 1915 Princeton University alumnus whose name is on a unique memorial collection at Princeton University Library. In Firestone Library’s Thomas-Graham Reading Room (located on the first floor), adjacent to the Miriam Y. Holden Collection, books of contemporary interest – uncommon in university libraries - bear identical bookplates on the front flyleaf: 

Memorial Library
William Boulton Dixon 1915
1st Lt. 151st Brigade F.A. 
Killed in action near Thiaucourt France
October 17th, 1918

Together, the works, along with the many titles purchased in prior years, compose of a memorial library in honor of Dixon, who served as a lieutenant in the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. In October 1918, while serving in France during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive which contributed to the collapse of the German army, he was killed in action. 

A memorial fund established in his honor has supported a collection in PUL that is rare among university libraries – books of general interest. As hubs of scholarly research, university libraries often focus their efforts on collecting materials relevant to research and rarely acquire contemporary fiction and non-fiction novels, namely leisure reading. 

However, following Dixon’s death, his family and friends established the fund to make available to students “the best literature of the day, the best books of biography as they appear, books of travel, discussion of political and social questions, and in fact, everything that represents the content of the best thinking of the present, even though it may not have a permanent value,” as then University Librarian J.T. Gerould wrote in 1920. 

“Today’s Princeton student researches not only time-tested questions using classic methods, but current social problems in an interdisciplinary fashion,” said Steve Knowlton, Librarian for History and African American Studies. “It is of great benefit to their work as budding scholars to have on hand works expressing current political and social thought, no matter how controversial or untried the scholarship may be. One of the great benefits of a Princeton education is the opportunity to learn to assess contemporary scholarship and argumentation under the tutelage of a world-class faculty, and the Dixon collection gives students the tools to engage in such assessment.”

The Dixon Collection at PUL consists precisely of what the fund intended – works illustrative of contemporary life and thought. Altogether, the collection comprises of the aforementioned print fiction and non-fiction collection in the Thomas-Graham Reading Room, a print travel books collection (also located in the Thomas-Graham Reading Room), and an ebooks collection hosted on the OverDrive platform. 

The print collection includes a range of popular works from 1921 to today, such as mysteries and detective stories and translations into English of books published in other languages. Current titles include books that are the talk of the town, such as “Fear” by Bob Woodward, “Paul Simon: The Life” by Robert Hilburn, “What Truth Sounds Like” by Michael Eric Dyson, “A Future of Faith” by Pope Francis, and popular novels such as “A Spark of Light” by 1987 alumna Jodi Picoult. The Dixon Travel Books Collection offers current Lonely Planet and Rough Guides travel titles to all areas covered by both publishers. 

The ebooks collection contains over 3,000 ebook and audiobook titles, including bestsellers, award winners, science and technology, popular fiction, history, biographies, and public domain books. Currently, the collection offers works such as “Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, and “Accessory to War” by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang. 

“It is a safe bet that many books bought on the Dixon fund – a good number of them first editions in their dust jackets – are not to be found in most university libraries,” said John Logan, Literature Bibliographer, “for the simple reason that they were popular books and therefore considered unworthy of consideration; and many of them are no longer to be found in public libraries because they had to be discarded for want of space to store them. 

“As for the books we acquired that ‘may not have a permanent value,’ scholars will be the first to affirm that yesterday’s forgotten bestsellers can be today’s gold, and that we are fortunate beyond measure that we have been able not only to acquire them but to keep them in our collections.” 

To learn more about the Dixon Collection, please contact Steve Knowlton, Librarian for History and African American Studies.

Written by Stephanie Ramírez, Library Communications Specialist & Staff Writer

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Library Communications Manager