About the Books of Isaac Norris


An article appearing in the Pennsylvania Gazette in October 1784 reported various announcements from Carlisle regarding Dickinson College, formally chartered a year earlier. Among them: "We have the pleasure to inform the public, that a foundation has already been laid for a library in our college. His Excellency the President of the state has presented the college with the principal part of the library of the late Isaac Norris, Esq; consisting of about 1500 volumes, upon the most important subjects." This 'foundation' remains largely intact to this day, the so-named Norris Collection forming the centerpiece of a rare book library in the College's Archives and Special Collections.

The Library of Isaac Norris

Isaac Norris was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who eventually became senior partner in the Norris & Company firm established by his father. As a prominent Quaker, he represented the interests of the Society of Friends in the State Assembly for many years. As Speaker of the Assembly, he commissioned a bell from a London manufacturer in 1751, what we know today as the Liberty Bell. As a respected diplomat and negotiator, he attended the Indian Conferences in Albany in 1745 and 1754. As an early trustee of the Academy and College of Philadelphia, he showed a keen interest in education. Most importantly for Dickinson College, however, Isaac Norris amassed a large personal library at his estate of Fair Hill, just outside Philadelphia. His only surviving daughter, Mary, inherited this family estate and later married John Dickinson.

Building upon the volumes collected by his father before him, Isaac Norris avidly purchased his many tomes from second-hand book dealers in London. An exemplar of the liberal arts scholar, he collected works across numerous disciplines: religion and philosophy, science and medicine, history and geography, rhetoric and literature. The texts of such classic authors as Aristotle, Cicero, Euclid, Tacitus, and Xenophon were gathered alongside those of early modern thinkers like Galileo, Grotius, Leibnitz, Machiavelli, and Pascal. Although some believe that the habit of the wealthy is merely to have rather than to use, the extensive notes in Isaac Norris's own hand in the margins of these books are a testament to his true interest in study and learning.

The Norris Collection at Dickinson College

Shortly after Dickinson College was chartered in 1783, John Dickinson pledged some five hundred volumes to his namesake institution from the library of his father-in-law. What ultimately arrived in large packing crates, however, were nearly two thousand books representing the full breadth of the original collection, a fitting and welcome addition to a newly established liberal arts school. This generous gift of learning now stands as one of fewer than ten extant private American libraries that date from the Revolutionary period, including those of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, the Logan family, and the Mather family. In the 1930s, Dickinson Librarian May Morris began separating out these old and rare volumes from the circulating library collection, allowing for their better care and preservation for interested researchers and scholars. In 1946 James Phillips, Curator of Dickinsoniana at the College, read a paper before the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Historical Association in which he described the early library of the College and the provenance of many of the volumes that remain.

In the 1970s, Dickinson College launched an initiative to catalog the Norris Collection. By combining college funds with financial support from the Pennsylvania Bicentennial Commission and the Pew Memorial Trust, the cataloging task was begun in 1974. Cordelia Neitz, Catalog Librarian at the College, led the Norris cataloging effort and wrote about her extensive contribution to the project. What ultimately emerged in 1976 from the cataloging project was the 315-page The Books of Isaac Norris (1701-1766) at Dickinson College, a short-title, annotated catalog of the collection. The book, compiled and prefaced by Marie Korey of the Library Company of Philadelphia, includes an introduction by Edwin Wolf 2nd, also of the Library Company, and a forward by Dickinson College Archivist Martha Slotten.

Project Description

With this website, we have chosen to reproduce the basic information contained in the short-title catalog listings for the 1902 items listed in The Books of Isaac Norris (1701-1766) at Dickinson College (along with 4 additional titles which have since been identified as likely being a part of that original gift). Our browse lists contain the bibliographic information as it appears in the 1976 book. Utilizing CONTENTdm software, we have also made available, in addition to the bibliographic information, images of the title pages of the 1906 works comprising the Norris Collection.

Project Staff

James Gerencser
Project Director
College Archivist and
     Special Collections Librarian
Michele Tourney
Project Coordinator and
Archives Assistant
Several individuals provided additional assistance during various stages of this project. For their contributions, we would like to thank Jennifer Bullick, Jessica Durkota, Cassandra Pyle, Robert Reeves, Claire Sadar, Jane Schroeder, Suzanne Ugliarolo, and Cassandra Wargo.

Conditions of Use

Dickinson College retains all rights to the digital images presented on this website. The Norris Collection website is intended for educational and research purposes only. These materials may be used freely for teaching and academic research and may be linked from other websites; use of the images and original content contained in this website should be properly credited to the source. Any and all commercial use of the materials on the Norris Collection website is strictly prohibited without written permission from Dickinson College. Reproductions of materials and licensing for use are available upon request for a fee. If you would like to use the materials presented here for publication or presentation, please contact the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections.