Greenfield Library’s Latest Exhibit Explores Recording of Barr and Buchanan


September 18, 2018 | By Kimberly Uslin

Cara and Jessica with cutout
Cara Sabolcik (right) and Jessica Cole pose with a cutout of Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan.

The St. John’s Program is without a doubt the cornerstone of the institution. But while Johnnies old and new are intimately familiar with the hundreds of classic texts that are the Great Books, the men who chose them are not nearly as well-known.

A new exhibition from the Greenfield Library, called “In the Beginning: The Genesis of the New Program,” seeks to change that. Based around a now-digitized interview with Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan about the founding and implementation of the New Program, the exhibit considers the personalities that shaped St. John’s 80 years ago.

“We were listening to this specific recording [because] we’ve been working on trying to digitize some of our archival materials,” says Cara Sabolcik, associate library director. “It was on an audio cassette tape, a medium that is not very viable anymore.” (Listen to the first and second parts of the interview on the digital archive.)

The file was digitized with financial help from Alan Hoffman (A49), an honorary board member that Sabolcik says is “very interested in helping preserve history.” In listening to it, Sabolcik and her student assistant, Jessica Cole, found the nearly three-hour interview to be something of a hidden treasure. While much of the information in the recording—which was made as a supplement to Warren C. Bomhardt’s (A42) thesis for Loyola on the history and development of the New Program—wasn’t necessarily news, it did yield a few previously unknown aspects of the founding.

Chief among Sabolcik and Cole’s discoveries was a “best books list” published by Sir John Lubbock in 1886 that was used in the modern establishment of the concept of Great Books.

Also instrumental is a great books list that John Erskine brought back from the American Expeditionary Forces University in Beaune, France after World War I to create the General Honors Course curriculum at Columbia University in the early 1920s. The evolution of the New Program has its roots in these early lists.

“It’s interesting because you don’t always hear about the evolution of the program going that far back,” Sabolcik says. “[These] were things we didn’t know about until we listened to the recording.”

Perhaps most valuable, however, is the opportunity to hear from Barr and Buchanan themselves.

“Some of our incoming freshman don’t know who Barr and Buchanan were,” Sabolcik says. “To hear their voices is just incredible. We here at the Library want to make sure that we preserve the memory [and voices] of Barr and Buchanan for past, present and future Johnnies.”

The pair’s personalities shine through in the recording, says Cole, making the long file well worth the listen.

“There’s one very funny part of the recording, a back and forth about how Barr wanted Buchanan to be the president [of the college]. Buchanan was like ‘No, no, no, I can’t be the president because I don’t answer my mail.’ Barr says, ‘You can just make the choice to answer,’ and Buchanan says ‘No, I just don’t do that, so you should just do it.’ [Barr] is like, ‘Okay, fine. I’ll be the president, but you have to be dean.’ And that’s how they started.”

To supplement the recording, Sabolcik and Cole decided to include an infographic outlining Barr’s criteria for a Great Book and Lubbock’s original list, as well as rare books featured in the New Program such as Plato’s Phaedrus (1578), Virgil’s Aeneid in Scottish Verse (1710), Montaigne’s Essais (1657) and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (1676). The exhibition also features the 1938 St. John’s yearbook (see it in the digital archives), published the spring after the Program went into effect, a copy of the 1940 LIFE article about St. John’s, and—delightfully—a selfie-ready cardboard cutout of Barr and Buchanan.

“It’s really fascinating,” says Sabolcik. “It’s one of my favorite [exhibitions] we’ve done. I don’t know if we’ll be able to top it.”

“In the Beginning: The Genesis of the New Program” is on view at Greenfield Library until January 18, 2019.