Alumnus leaves rare book collection to university

July 11, 2023
By: Rebecca Cross

Robert Mullin ’53, MEd ’56 was a generous benefactor of his alma mater for his entire life. When he passed away in 2021 at the age of 91, he left one more gift: his Manhattan apartment and its contents.

Those contents included several rare books, which are now part of the Worcester State Library collection. “When I saw the books in the apartment, I thought, ‘We need to do something with them,’” said Louise Taylor, director of gift planning and scholarships for University Advancement.

That’s where Ross Griffiths, the university library’s archivist, stepped in. Over his seven years at Worcester State, Griffiths has amassed a significant collection of books related to the history of Worcester or Worcester State, books by Worcester State faculty, and selected unusual items like historical costumes and furniture. All the items in the archives are judged to be too fragile to be in the stacks, where they are at risk of being damaged.

Griffiths examined the six books that were bequeathed by Mullin and found reason to be excited. The books were in relatively good condition, with no musty odor—a sign of a fungus that damages books.

Among the books was an 1845 Boston Almanac—small enough to carry in a pocket and containing a map to the city, memoranda space, calendar, and listings of businesses (such as plaster factories and pianoforte sellers) and where they’re located. The almanac isn’t particularly rare, Griffiths said, but it is rare to find one in as good a condition as this one is.

What makes a book rare depends on many factors, including where it was published, who published it, and when it was published. For example, books published in the 1700s in the United States might be rare, but a similar book published at a similar date in Germany would not be because Germany had printing presses for much longer.

One of the books from Mullin’s collection was missing several pages at the front. This required Griffiths to do some detective work. He knew the book was by John Locke, but that was it. Upon examination, he noted that the typeface used the long S, which disappeared from printing in the early 1800s, so he surmised that the book was probably from the 1700s. After some internet searches, he found the book on Google Books and was able to determine that the book was On Human Understanding, and the edition had been published in London in 1741, making it the oldest book in the collection.

Another book in the collection was a 1796 Royal Standard English Dictionary—what Griffiths called “our superstar.” The dictionary was published in Worcester, Mass., on the press of Isaiah Thomas. “Part of what makes this a great item is that Isaiah Thomas was a very significant person in the history of the Revolution and the history of printing,” said Griffiths. “It is a real piece of Worcester history.”


The books are a significant addition to the university’s collection. “Every book of this particular age has a lot of unique marks on it that really tell a story of its ownership, where it came from, how it was handled,” Griffiths said. “Thirty or forty years ago what made rare books special was that they contained information that wasn’t widely available. As more and more books are digitized, the book as an object becomes much more important. It’s great to have examples of this really early period of publishing in the United States, which we didn’t have before this bequest came in.”

The bequest was just one act of generosity after a lifetime of it. Mullin funded several scholarships at Worcester State, including the Professor Grace Kendrick Musical Celebrations Fund to support the music program and the Eileen and William Mullin Memorial Scholarship to honor his parents and the Francis J. Mullin Memorial Scholarship to honor his uncle—both of which he endowed.

Mullin was interested in the world and made friends wherever he went, said Taylor. For many years, he taught the children of American servicemen and women in Japan, Germany, England, Morocco, and Denmark and then later taught at Queens College in New York. No matter how far he traveled from his native Worcester, he kept in close contact with his friends at Worcester State. He received the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2004 and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 2014 because of his incredible commitment to Worcester State.

“This bequest,” said Taylor, “was the cherry on the sundae of all the other things he had done for us over the course of his life.”

Top image: Ross Griffiths with the rare books

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