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Black and white photo of Earl Gregg Swem seated at a desk in front of a wall of bookcases

Earl Gregg Swem was College Librarian from 1920-1944 at William & Mary. Swem was born on December 29, 1870, and died on April 14, 1965. He joined the staff of William & Mary in June 1920 and retired in 1944 (June?) from the Library (which was at the time in the current Tucker Hall). Swem received an honorary degree (LL.D.) from the College in 1941. The official dedication ceremony for the new Earl Gregg Swem Library was held on Charter Day, February 12, 1966. An oil on canvas portrait by artist Bethuel Moore of Earl Gregg Swem painted in 1938 hangs in the Information Commons on the first floor of the library.

"Dr. Earl Gregg Swem's achievements as a historian, bibliographer and librarian earned him praise and gratitude during his long career, which started in high school at the Iowa Masonic Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After graduation from Lafayette College in 1893, he was associated with several libraries in Chicago and in 1903 moved on to the Library of Congress, serving there as chief of the cataloging division of the Copyright Office until 1907 when he became assistant state librarian of Virginia. He not only built up the collection of the Virginia State Library in his twelve years there, but also began his crucial work in Virginia bibliography, compiling finding lists and bibliographies of the State Library's books, manuscript materials, and historical records.

"Swem continued this work at the College of William & Mary, at which he served as librarian from 1920 to 1944. Under his direction, the William & Mary library collection grew from twenty-five thousand books and twenty thousand manuscripts to more than two hundred forty thousand books and approximately four hundred thousand manuscripts. Swem also used his position to make the library more accessible to its patrons, by offering classes on library use to students and library assistants and, in a practice almost unheard of at that time, opening the stacks to students and the public.

"Swem's achievements as a bibliographer reached their peak during his years at William & Mary, when in 1936 he completed the Virginia Historical Index, an invaluable source for historians of Virginia. After his retirement from William & Mary in 1944, Swem served as librarian emeritus and continued to edit books and manuscripts on Virginia history. He died aged ninety-four in 1965, a year before the completion of William & Mary's new library, designated the Earl Gregg Swem Library in honor of his contributions to the library collection and to historical research."1

Material in the Special Collections Research Center


  • A brief video biography of Earl Gregg Swem produced by Swem Library is available via YouTube or iTunesU


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A note about the contents of this site

This website contains the best available information from known sources at the time it was written. Unfortunately, many of the early original records of William & Mary were destroyed by fires, military occupation, and the normal effects of time. The information in this website is not complete, and it changes as we continue to research and uncover new sources.