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Historic library adjacent to Ground Zero revamped

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Historic library adjacent to Ground Zero revamped

NEW YORK—An original life insurance policy for a 30-year-old American slave, the sole copy of a 19th century insurance catalog and a record of funded annuities from 1775 that lists Marie Antoinette are among the priceless pieces of insurance history that can be found at one of the nation's oldest specialty insurance libraries.

Bright and airy, the recently refurbished Kathryn & Shelby Cullom Davis Library at the St. John's University School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science dominates the third floor of the school's Manhattan campus building, and is equipped with flat-screen computers, comfortable working spaces, and accented with paintings and other artwork.

But walking up and down the rows of stacks, the library's modern conveniences give way to a rich history. Many of the 100,000 books contained there bear printing dates more than a century old, and tattered leather-bound volumes and fragile typewritten manuscripts are scattered throughout.

"From the very beginning, the library was a part of the fabric of our institution," said Ellen Thrower, executive director of the risk management school, which is a part of St. John's Peter J. Tobin College of Business.

Back in 1901, Robert P. Barbour, founder of the Insurance Society of New York, and Edward R. Hardy, first chairman of the Library Committee, unpacked the first box of books that began the Library of the Insurance Society of New York. Eager to train young people entering the insurance industry, the society in its early days formulated a curriculum that in 1962 became the College of Insurance, which in 2001 merged with St. John's University.

The school's library grew with the help of a major endowment in the 1970s from its namesake, former New York state insurance regulator and U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Shelby Cullom Davis and his wife, Kathryn.

Over the years, the Davis Library has proved an invaluable resource on many key industry topics, ranging from disasters to insurance law.

In the landmark South-Eastern Underwriters Assn. case leading to the 1944 U.S. Supreme Court decision that insurance business is interstate commerce within the meaning of the Constitution, attorneys borrowed upwards of 100 books from the library to conduct their research. Following the Supreme Court's ruling, they presented the library with bound volumes of every document pertaining to the case.

More recently, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, lawyers flooded the library again to conduct in-depth research on what continues to be a central point of contention in insurance litigation—whether the attacks constituted one event or two—according to the library's director, Ismael Rivera-Sierra.

The oldest book in the library's annals was published in Venice, Italy, in 1569. Titled "A Treatise of Insurance," and written by Benvenuto Straccha, the book compiles all known information regarding insurance at that time, Mr. Rivera-Sierra explained.

"Our collection isn't just about things here (in the United States), it's global," stressed Ms. Thrower, who noted the library regularly draws foreign visitors, many who are searching for publications unavailable in their home countries.

The library is not, however, the oldest specialty library dedicated to insurance in the United States—that honor is held by The Insurance Library Assn. of Boston, founded in 1887. Still, the Davis Library's compilation of insurance literature, periodicals, speeches, and sample forms and policies tracing the development of the insurance industry can be found nowhere else in the world, its overseers say.

And unlike most, this library further boasts several rare artifacts, making it virtually a museum for patrons as well.

Among other things, it has culled a collection of antique automatic sprinklers and a colorful group of American and international fire marks, emblems historically issued by insurers to their policyholders.

The library possesses its fair share of the oddball items too, such as an original policy form from the early 1900's for the "safeguarding of turkey interests" underwritten by the National Turkey Federation Underwriters Department in St. Paul, Minn., and an original "trip accident" policy form purchased from a vending machine—at one time an accepted method of procuring travel policies in airports and railway stations—for a premium of 25 cents by a Bloomfield, N.J., resident journeying from New York to Seattle.

The Davis library largely has amassed its valuable collection through donations, from insurance companies, other libraries and individuals, Mr. Rivera-Sierra said.

Currently, the library is a membership institution (see box). It was previously open to the public, but in 1995 access was restricted after books began "disappearing," Mr. Rivera-Sierra said.

St. John's is currently in the process of a multi-year plan to revitalize and raise the profile of the Davis Library, which suffered a loss in patronage following the destruction of the Twin Towers.

"We had a lot of members in the World Trade Center," said Mr. Rivera-Sierra, recalling that executives would frequently come by in the mornings or on a lunch break to read periodicals, or do research in order to write a speech.

The St. John's building, adjacent to Ground Zero, was taken possession of by the federal government and the Red Cross for use as a response center in the days following the attacks. The library was forced to shut down, and not permitted to reopen again until January 2002, and some members never came back.

"We used to have $200,000 in membership per year, and now, it's cut to maybe $20,000," Mr. Rivera- Sierra said.

But, things are slowly gaining momentum again. The library has already completed a series of renovations, and last month launched a lecture series. Dr. Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leading authority on hurricanes named one of Time Magazine's Top 100 "People Who Shape Our World," served as the first speaker.

Additionally, the library is aiming to make major investments in technology to make accessible online its collection of old books and artifacts that currently cannot be viewed from remote locations, and it is also hoping to continue growing the old collection, Ms. Thrower said.

The ultimate goal, said Ms. Thrower, is to make the Davis Library a top-notch specialty library, and the primary source of information on risk, hazards and insurance to serve a "dual purpose" of meeting students' academic needs, as well as the needs of scholars, researchers, the insurance industry and the general public.