December 2015 Archways

In Memoriam

James Tanis, the Constance A. Jones Director of Libraries and professor of history emeritus from 1969 to 1997, died on July 19, 2015, in Audubon, Pennsylvania.

Tanis led the libraries through major growth, including the opening of Canaday Library and the creation of the Collier Science Library and the Rhys Carpenter Library of Art and Archaeology. He was pioneering in his commitment to consortial library partnerships and his introduction of computer-based catalogs, electronic resources, and the digitization of art into the operations of the Bryn Mawr and Tri-College libraries.

A specialist of rare books and special collections, Tanis was instrumental in building the College’s collections. During his tenure, the College received many important collections, including the Seymour Adelman collection of British writers, Americana, and Philadelphia area history; the J. Hampton Barnes London collection; the Phyllis Goodhart Gordan ’35 collection of early printed books; the Mary Louise and Frederick E. Maser collection including American bookbindings and Christina Rossetti letters and books; the Willman Spawn British and American bookbindings collection; and the papers of Katharine Sergeant White, Class of 1914. Through Tanis’s professional advocacy, Bryn Mawr became a founding member of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries.

Tanis was an influential mentor of library staff. Eileen Markson, longtime librarian of the College’s art and archaeology collections, recalls, “James supported me in every way, providing wise training but knowing when to let me forge ahead and find my way. No one could ever have asked for a better ‘boss.’”

He earned his bachelor’s degree in divinity from the Union Theological Seminary and his doctorate at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He was librarian at the Harvard Divinity School from 1956 to 1965 and university librarian at Yale from 1965 to 1969.

In addition to his career as a librarian, Tanis was a teacher, scholar, and ordained minister. He published extensively on College library holdings, in the fields of librarianship and special collections, and in his own field, Dutch history. At Bryn Mawr, he taught courses on the rise of the Dutch Republic and its golden age. And he remained active in ministry as parish associate at Reformed Church of the Ascension, United Church of Christ. His son Justin recalls, “He was a fierce advocate for LGBTQ rights both in the church and in society, and he said the Supreme Court decision on June 26 was the best present he could hope for on his 87th birthday.”

The College is planning a spring exhibition highlighting Tanis’s role in building its special collections.


Tanis3An Appreciation  by Joanna Semel Rose ’52

James Tanis was a thinker, teacher, and public intellectual in the best sense of the word. A great librarian and, even more significantly, a great man, Jim was a modest yet talented “man of parts.” He was a minister, a social worker, a librarian at Yale, and the individual who transformed the Bryn Mawr library and its rare book room forever. He organized fine exhibits, acquired extraordinary volumes for the College, and developed a friendship with Seymour Adelman, the Philadelphia collector who was a friend of the Eakins family, a lover of London (from afar), and a supporter of Bryn Mawr.

When I first became close to James, it was during a period in which I felt my contribution to college life should center on Canaday and its leader. It was Tanis who suggested the first red-and-white quilt show that flew like banners in the Reading Room; Tanis who used my scrimshaw to design cards for the College gift shop; Tanis who enlisted me in drawing Seymour Adelman’s collection of Lovat Fraser, of “boxing” material, of English literature, of Eakins papers to Bryn Mawr. Like James, Adelman was gentle, courtly, persuasive, and original. He enjoyed Tanis’ postcard collections, folk art, Dutch history (the Tanis book is great). Mary Leahy, in charge of the rare book room, was devoted to her boss, as were my husband and I.

When James produced the splendid exhibit Leaves of Gold: Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in Philadelphia Area Collections, my son-in-law, James H. Marrow, professor of art history at Princeton, wrote an introductory essay. He  shares our admiration of the man.

James Tanis was an idea person with the rare ability to carry out his ideas. He loved his family, his friends, his world, and history. Through him I learned the joys of passionate collecting and the rewards of finding literary treasures. And I had the rare opportunity to talk with him about them.

It was he who kept me close to Bryn Mawr, and when I enter any library in any city, in any country, I think warmly of James Tanis.

Comments on “In Memoriam”

  1. During the 1980s and 90s I was intermittently in contact with James Tanis, especially in initiating the Library’s systematic acquisition of Canadian books and journals that continues to this day. As the actual purchases were handled first by John Dooley and subsequently by Eric Pumroy. Most of my memories of James are personal his thank-you note that I still have somewhere for giving the library my 18th Century edition of Erasmus’ Collloquies in honor of his retirement, and meeting him in the crowd of theologians and Reformation historians at the Sixteenth Century Studies AGMS in Toronto and elsewhere. Most amusing was being allowed to complete (almost at deadline) my contribution to the College publication Fantasy and Fashion ((1996) at reunion time. He steered me to a computer in his office, since computers then were definitely not portable so all I could bring was an incomplete draft on a floppy. I’ve just re-read the article; it could have used more time at that keyboard.